My best teacher

4th May 2007 at 01:00
This 'distinguished old girl' was always late for assembly. An extraordinary teacher inspired her to speak in public - and his son was the first boy she kissed

I loved school and enjoyed my time in primary and secondary. But I always hated having to get up early. In my last year at Seafield Grammar, I had the highest number of late marks, as I was always missing assembly. I had to laugh when I returned to the school, which is now called Sacred Heart Catholic College (a specialist school in maths and computing), to open its new sports centre and the plaque described me as "a distinguished old girl".

I had a good education, which set me free and opened up so many other opportunities for me. That remains the case today for children, not just here in the UK but all over the world, and it's why nothing is more important than investing in education.

I was lucky to have a number of inspirational teachers, but the most memorable was Denis Smerdon at St Edmund's of Canterbury Roman Catholic Primary. He taught me in my 11-plus year and he ended his career there as headteacher.

He was a former Second World War pilot and a fabulous actor and singer who came runner-up for the lead part in Fiddler on the Roof in London's West End. He was so good that he still sang and acted semi-professionally in Liverpool when he was a teacher and was well known in the city. And his son was the first boy I ever kissed.

As a result of Denis Smerdon's efforts, singing and drama at school were important and of high quality. He ran the school choir and took it to fantastic heights, including a performance in the International Eisteddfod cultural and singing event in North Wales. The school - now called St Edmund's and St Thomas - still carries on its great tradition and I returned recently to present it with the Silver Artsmark of the Arts Council of England.

For me, that love of acting and confidence in speaking in public that I learnt with him remained with me throughout secondary school and might explain why I ended up as a barrister.

I was delighted to be able to invite Denis and Molly, his wife, to No 10. I think he was proud that one of his pupils made it to Downing Street, even if it was by marriage. We kept in touch right up until his death just a few years ago. I also had the chance to repay a little of the debt I owed him by nominating him as a notable Liverpudlian for Liverpool's Hall of Faith.

With his background and history, Denis Smerdon couldn't help but make a big impression on his pupils. He was an extraordinary, inspirational figure and teacher, who widened all our horizons and raised our ambitions.

I know it's odd, but he had such amazing presence that when I went back to visit St Edmund's, I felt I could still sense him there, even after 40 years

Cherie Blair, known professionally as Cherie Booth QC, is a well-respected barrister. As the wife of Tony Blair, Prime Minister, she often makes national headlines for her work and for living with a prominent politician. Cherie was talking to Mary McCarney

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