My best teacher

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
I was born in London but my dad was a New Zealander and we moved back when I was five. We lived in Tokoroa, a small timber town with no theatre and only a part-time cinema.

Twenty-six different languages were spoken in the town. In my class at the intermediate school there was a bunch of pakeha (white New Zealander) kids, at least half a dozen Maori, a couple of Samoans, one guy from Niue island, a couple of girls who had Dutch parents and one Swiss.

In some kind of educational experiment we'd all been picked out of other groups as being bright and put in Mrs Crum's class for one year. But we were good at different things, which must have made it difficult for her to teach us.

I liked school. I loved learning and, instead of being bored and getting into trouble, I found I was working with kids who were at the same level or pushing me. There were 25 or 30 of us aged 12 and 13 in our last year before we moved on to high school.

We had some young and groovy teachers, but Mary Crum wasn't one of them.

She was a widow with two young sons and was serious and quite strict. She could be brusque; you didn't want to upset her.

I'd been terrified of going into her class because I had to take a note into the room where she was teaching the year before and she'd shouted at me for disturbing her.

She was demanding and expected good work. We made sure we delivered it. Her teaching technique was to talk to us, to engage us. We sat in small groups, not in desks in rows.

Sometimes she would invite people in to talk to us. I remember one of her friends who lived in the Pacific Islands came and told us what it was like there.

Mrs Crum would set us a task and then leave us to get on with it, which made us independent. She got us reading grown-up books very quickly. I remember enjoying a biography of Lord Beaverbrook and Antonia Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots.

We read in groups and discussed what we had read. We did a lot of performing and a friend and I got together and wrote little sketches which we put on in front of the whole school. We formed a radio station as a class and even had a mock election.

To me Mrs Crum seemed a very sophisticated lady. She gave us a taste of arts and culture that many of us had never had before. School trips usually involved camping by a lake and learning about the flora and fauna and sleeping six at a time in a hut.

Mrs Crum took us to Wellington, which was about 400 miles away, and showed us the parliament buildings and museums and art galleries.

We were billeted with children from another school and I stayed with a really wacky writer called Marilyn Duckworth who didn't get out of bed in the morning. Her kids took her breakfast and she sat up in bed and wrote at her typewriter. I'd never seen anything like it.

At the end of our year in her class Mrs Crum took us, and our parents, out for a three-course dinner with wine. As well as being given the chance to try a lot of things I didn't even know were available to me, the year I spent with her was brilliant for my brain.

Through Mrs Crum I learned to work on my own initiative and to work in a team with other people. She also taught me to keep going, to finish every task that I began, to get things done. Now, when I'm teaching writing workshops I tell people: "Finish your work, don't be arty about it. Writing is a proper job and if you take it seriously and work at it, you might be successful."

Writer and performer Stella Duffy was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1963 Born in London

1968-73 attends Tokoroa central school, New Zealand

1974-75 Tokoroa intermediate school

1976-79 Sacred Heart college, Hamilton

1980 Forest View high school, Tokoroa

1981-83 Degree in English literature at Victoria University, Wellington

1984 Tours New Zealand schools performing with Town and Country Players

1986-94 Performs stand-up and improvised comedy in fringe theatres in Britain

1994 First novel, Calendar Girl, published

2003 Adapts novel, Immaculate Conceit, for National Youth Theatre

2004 Appears in Lifegame at National Theatre and solo show, Breaststrokes February 2005 9th novel, Parallel Lies published

July 2005 Mouths of Babes published in paperback

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