My best teacher

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Maggie Hayes was a teacher at St Luke's elementary school in Kingston-upon-Thames, where I went when I was in the Barnardo's home after my parents both died within six months. It was wartime and when the flying bombs started all 150 boys in the home were evacuated to Norfolk. It was an idyllic summer; I'd never lived in the country before and thought it was great.

There was a small village school which wasn't big enough to take us all so we thought we'd never have to go to school again. That summer I got into reading, and there was a lake nearby where we went sailing in a boat made out of an old aircraft fuel tank.

Then one Sunday night in church we spotted Maggie Hayes. She'd come up from Kingston to teach us, and half of us would go to school in the mornings and half in the afternoons. Maggie was a well-meaning woman, a typical 1940s unmarried schoolmistress with grey hair, which she wore in a bun, glasses, tweed skirts and wrinkled stockings.

There was a curtain down the middle of the classroom and we were on one side and the village children and their teacher were on the other. We were disgraceful. We behaved so badly that the village schoolteacher used to order her children out into the playground so they wouldn't be contaminated by us. It was the sugar beet season and we threw the beets at each other.

We were rude. We were rowdy. As the year went on and it got colder and colder the poor village children would put their little faces to the window and beg us to calm down so they could come back into the warm.

Maggie tried so hard. She took us for walks in the countryside and tried to explain nature to us. She had an old sit-up-and-beg bicycle and we took the chain off it and let down her tyres. We used to lose her purposely on these nature walks and she'd be wheeling her bike across the fields shouting, "Where are you?". I'm ashamed now when I think about it. I realise how good she was and how forbearing.

Every morning one of us had to read a few verses from the Bible. I'd hold the Bible upside down and knock the blackboard over - anything to get a few cheap laughs. But one day she gave me the "Song of Solomon" to read. It was a road to Damascus moment: I had a revelation of words for the first time.

It's a wonderful poem and moves me even now. Right then I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Maggie added to my ambitions by taking us on a trip to Norfolk, and the Barnardo's superintendent offered a prize of 2s 6d for the best essay about the trip. I won with a piece I called "Exertion to Norwich". Maggie said, "Don't you mean excursion?" and being a smart-arse I replied, "Well, it was very tiring."

We went back to Kingston and Maggie dropped out of my life, so I was never able to thank her. I went to the local technical school to learn to be a bricklayer and then another influential person came into my life: Wally Brampton, who was a housemaster at Barnardo's. We called him the Walrus because of his moustache. He was a soldier who had been invalided out of the war.

When I got chickenpox I was put into the billiard room because I was infectious and he came to see me. I wrote a story called "Sleek the Otter", which owed a lot to Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter, and Mr Brampton read it and told me I was a good writer. He brought me a load of adventure stories and encouraged me to write more, and when I was 16 Barnardo's got me a job on the local paper and bought me a typewriter.

Author Leslie Thomas was talking to Pamela Coleman. Time to Care is The TES's campaign to get a better deal for children in care in England and Wales. To join the debate about how they can be helped, go to www.tes.co.ukblogs

The story so far

1931 Born Newport, Gwent

1936-39 Somerton infants' school, Newport

1939 Maeglas elementary school, Newport

1943 Goes into care with Barnardo's

1943-45 St Luke's elementary, Kingston

1944 Evacuated to Norfolk

1945-47 Kingston technical school

1947 Reporter on Woodford Times,Essex

1949 National service

1964 Publication of This Time Next Week about his time in care

1966 Publication of The Virgin Soldiers, which has since sold 4 million copies

1998 Becomes vice-president of Barnardo's

2005 Awarded the OBE

July 6, 2006 Publication of updated autobiography, In My Wildest Dreams, and paperback of 29th novel, Dover Beach

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