My best teacher

16th December 2005 at 00:00
It is only quite recently I became a stickler for correct punctuation. At school I regularly came a cropper with "its" and "it's". Time and time again my homework would be returned with the floating apostrophe struck out and I didn't know why. Miss Fitzsimons, who took me for English, couldn't believe that my classmates and I had got as far as the fifth form without having been taught grammar. We'd been taught French and Latin grammar, but English grammar was something it was expected we'd infer from our reading.

Spelling and grammar were corrected in our homework and we were supposed to learn as we went along.

I went to Tiffin girls' grammar in Kingston-upon-Thames, which was a pretty academic school. I liked it there because the headmistress, Miss Weedon, wasn't all that bothered about sport and I was not a great athlete. My school career began well, but then started to slip by the third or fourth years. Fortunately, I did much better when it came to A-levels.

Miss Fitzsimons was a great teacher because she taught English as a subject that you used every day, not just to pass exams. She was short with strawberry blonde hair and glasses and a bit tweedy. Occasionally she would talk about things outside the curriculum, which was unusual in those days.

When we were studying Shakespeare she told us about going to see Alec Guinness in Troilus and Cressida.

She gave us little glimpses into her world, which made me realise that what we were doing in the classroom could link into life outside school. She edited the school magazine and encouraged me to write for it. When we all went to see the film version of Hamlet, she asked me to review the film for the magazine. It was my first commission.

Like any good teacher, when we were studying a text she would mention how other authors had written about the same topic, so if you were interested you could run off and compare them for yourself. Although she was a stickler, she had a sense of humour and I respected her and enjoyed her lessons.

There was another wonderful teacher called Mrs Cuthbertson who taught Latin. She was Czechoslovakian by birth and had a strong accent. She was married to an actor who had appeared in an edition of Fawlty Towers and we were all very excited when we saw him on TV.

Mrs Cuthbertson was also my form mistress one year. She was keen on yoga and fresh air. She suggested I should do deep breathing exercises before I went to sleep. She must have thought I was a bit tense. I was quite a fearful schoolgirl and took things seriously. Once when the maths mistress wrote "come now" on the bottom of my work, I misunderstood the comment and rushed to the staffroom to find her.

Looking back on my schooldays I realise that, like most people then, I was conscientious and law-abiding. We were all well behaved; I don't remember anybody being rebellious. The most daring thing we did was roll up our skirts to make them shorter and I carried an airline bag instead of a satchel. Now and again if there was a lesson I really disliked - usually sport - I would stay at home and get my mother to write me an excuse note.

I was a form captain a couple of times, but I was never made a prefect. And when I was voted form captain, one of the teachers asked the class to reconsider. I was probably thought to be too apathetic to be given responsibility.

It was only after I became a columnist I learned to take a stand and speak out about things such as punctuation and manners as I have on radio and in my books. There was no public speaking or debating at school, but at the end of our last term my friend Laura and I wrote and performed a show, which Miss Fitzsimons praised.

I lost touch with both teachers after I left and the school moved, but I went back last year and was amused to see that the lectern on the stage was the same one they had in my day 30 years earlier.

Professional "stickler", writer and broadcaster Lynne Truss was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1955 Born Kingston-upon-Thames

1959-62 Petersham Russell infants school

1962-66 The Orchard junior school, Petersham

1966-73 Tiffin girls' grammar school, Kingston-upon-Thames

1974-77 Reads English at University College, London

1977 First job, sub-editor at Radio Times

1978-86 Deputy literary editor, Times Higher Education Supplement

1990 onwards Freelance columnist for the Independent on Sunday and The Times

1993 First novel, With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed

2003 Publication of Eats, Shoots Leaves, which becomes a bestseller in 2004, selling three million copies

October 2005 Publication of Talk to the Hand

2006 Receives an honorary degree from the Open University

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