My best teacher

6th January 2006 at 00:00
I know it doesn't fit the rock 'n' roll image, but the one thing I learned at school that has been invaluable is discipline. My dad was in the Army and as a child we moved around a lot to different bases. Then we settled in Brixton and I went to St Martin-in-the-Fields in Tulse Hill when I was 11.

It was the year after it had changed from being a traditional grammar school to a comprehensive, and so it still had that old grammar mentality.

You had to wear regulation uniform and girls were sent home for wearing the wrong coloured shirt. It seemed strict at the time. But looking back, getting that sense of discipline was good for me. In music the ones who are most successful are usually the ones who are most disciplined about it.

I was rebellious when I first went there and was always in trouble. It was as if I had a devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel on the other. My two best friends were the biggest bully in the school and the head prefect.

Eventually the good side won.

My favourite subjects were art and design and English. We had a fantastic English teacher called Ruthie Webb. She loved her subject and she loved language and she radiated her enthusiasm. She was also my form teacher in the fourth and fifth years. She had a way of making everything seem like fun but at the same time keeping us in order. But she also had energy and the ability to inspire.

She taught me my lasting love of Shakespeare. She took us to see a performance of Macbeth. Everybody was dressed in black and the whole production was about the language rather than the costumes or sets. Judi Dench was in it and she was fantastic. I was on the same table as her at a charity dinner recently and I wanted to go over and thank her. I didn't in the end because I was too shy.

It probably took Miss Webb a couple of years to get me to understand Shakespeare. When I began it seemed like learning a foreign language. But she had ways of explaining it. Her English lessons were a pleasure, whereas with something like mathematics, I'd always come out of the classroom feeling battered and bruised, like I'd just got a black eye.

What she helped me understand was how you could use language to describe things in different ways and that it could be very simple. That's helped with my own songwriting. I was writing lyrics and poems when I was 13.

Somebody bought me a Filofax, which was very cool back then. And by the time I left school at 16, I'd filled it with lyrics. There must have been 100 of them. But I never showed them to Miss Webb. I was too shy and small and quiet and skinny in those days. I'd walk into a room and nobody would notice, which was how I liked it.

I got eight GCSEs, but I didn't want to stay and do A-levels. I didn't particularly enjoy school, apart from English, which is a tribute to Miss Webb. I was tired of being told what to do and I didn't want still to be wearing a school uniform at 18. So I went to the London School of Furniture to do an interior design course. I could always sing, which I took for granted because everybody in my family is musical. But nobody regarded it as something you could do as a career.

I've spoken to Miss Webb a couple of times on the phone since and she's still working in education. I told her what an inspiration she'd been. I'd like to see her and I often wonder what she looks like now. She had long, dark, dark hair and always wore green or grey flares, which would be very cool today.

I owe Miss Webb a huge amount and I'm lucky to have been taught by her.

It's such a difficult job and so much work for so little reward. But it only takes one teacher to love their job and inspire those they're teaching and they can change the course of people's lives.

Singer Skin (Deborah Dyer) was talking to Nigel Williamson

The story so far

1967 Born Deborah Dyer in south London

1978 Attends St Martin-in-the-Fields, Tulse Hill, London borough of Lambeth

1983 Leaves school and enrolls on an interior design course

1989 Works for a London design company

1990 Begins singing in a Brixton wine bar

1993 Forms the group Mamma Wild, soon renamed Skunk Anansie

1995 Releases first single, Selling Jesus. Debut album Paranoid Sunburnt enters the charts at number eight

1996 Second album Stoosh! reaches top 10

1999 Third album, Post-Orgasmic Chill. Band headlines Glastonbury then breaks up

2003 Skin re-emerges with debut solo album Fleshwounds

March 2006 New album Fake Chemical State

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