My best teacher

15th September 2006 at 01:00
I always fell in love with my English teachers, but in particular there was Mrs Hughes, who taught me from second to fourth year at Bishopbriggs high school. She taught creative writing, and it was exciting, like learning to ride a bike for the first time. She helped us plan our sentence structure and taught us about the effect it would have. Although I had written since the age of nine, I became fully conscious of what I was doing in her class.

As a result I did all this creative writing in these little notebooks at home and showed them to her. She packed me off to see Alasdair Gray, who was then writer in residence at Strathclyde University, which seemed an extraordinary thing to do. I remember him saying to me, "Well there is no doubt about it at all, in my mind you are a writer". I remember the sky being bright blue and floating over the pavement, even though he had cut about two-and-a-half pages out of the three I had written.

Mrs Hughes was a passionate person, though very shy. I remember her saying to me "you are a model pupil Jackie", and me bursting with the happiness of it. She didn't stay in teaching. I think the discipline exasperated her, and she opened a wool shop which she still has. She still comes to my events and reads my books. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye with her and understanding the whole business of an unreliable narrator. I like creating naive narratives myself. I never got fed up with analysing books, but as a writer I now wonder whether the writers I studied intended all the things we read into them. But I see that as you read you make your own book. The book reads the reader and the reader reads the book.

I loved secondary school. It was an ordinary comprehensive - only a handful of us went on to university - but it was an open place. All the bullying for being different I had experienced at primary school disappeared. And my English teachers were all excellent. I also remember Mr Ferguson, who wore too-tight shirts, his neck rising from them like a snake. But he was good on First World War poets, and I used to go to his night classes as well. I liked the business of studying, the extra classes. I liked exams and having a sharp pencil and all of us discussing books. I quite miss it.

The other teacher who had a massive impact on me was Professor Angela Smith at Stirling University. I remember her course on the Indian novel vividly.

Through her teaching she gave you the chance to discover yourself, which is what a good teacher should do.

I remember studying women and madness in 19th and 20th century literature and developing a fascination with women characters on the borderline, women who could only explore their deeper self by going off the rails.

The opposite side of being a writer is being a reader, and I became a passionate reader through Angela and her husband Graham Smith, who also taught at Stirling. I remember a session with him when we read poems. I chose one by Anne Sexton about a woman giving up a child for adoption. I was nearly in tears reading it, and he remembers that still. He also remembers me talking about a love poem by WH Auden to another man, and I too remember the excitement of talking about it; that it felt like a release. It's nice to know that teachers can remember things you said 25 years ago. Graham always thought I would do something with my life. He and Angela invite me back to Stirling when my books are published. I have been back every year for the past 10 years. My first novel, Trumpet, is taught there on the English syllabus, which seems like a dream.

Good teachers give you this gift of learning, which is a passionate gift.

It's also good to have people who believe in you. My mum and dad who brought me up were the first people who did. My mum would send my poems off to newspapers and she and my dad would take me to poetry nights at the Highland Institute. There were more pints than poems, but that's where I would hear Liz Lochhead, who was quite an influence. I still read my poems to my mum.

Poet, novelist and playwright Jackie Kay was talking to Elaine Williams.

Jackie Kay is the Poetry Society's virtual poet in residence leading up to National Poetry Day on October 5. Secondary schools can apply by September 25 to win a day's visit by Jackie Kay, by submitting 300 words about how they would like to use the visit to work on identity: more details on


1961 Born in Glasgow of white Scottish mother and Nigerian father. Adopted by white couple

1966-73 Balmuilday primary school, Bishopbriggs, Dunbartonshire

1973-79 Bishopbriggs high school

1979-83 Reads English at Stirling University

1983-91 Administrative jobs for Arts Council and publisher Sheba. Works at an after-school club in Dalston and as a porter at Westminster Hospital

1991 Publishes first of 10 collections of poetry, Adoption Papers

1998 Novel Trumpet, inspired by the life of US jazz trumpeter Billy Tipton, who died in 1989 and was discovered to be a woman

2002 First short story collection Why Don't You Stop Talking? and a novel for children, Strawgirl

2006 Short story collection, Wish I Was Here (Picador) and poetry collection Life Mask (Bloodaxe)

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