My best teacher

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Shoving a trout through the letterbox is not the accepted way to show your appreciation. But the unusual present meant a great deal to this actress's father and her best teacher

I grew up in the rural community of Ballougry in County Derry, Northern Ireland. My father, Arthur Burton, was headmaster of the village primary school, where I and my three elder sisters were pupils. We only had to walk through our garden gate to get to school. There was something absolutely idyllic about it.

Though Dad was the boss, he never showed favouritism toward his daughters. Actually, I was quite a naughty child, always jabbering away in classes. But if there was punishment to be handed out, my father made absolutely no distinctions.

On the surface he could seem quite authoritarian. If the class was being what he'd have called "dim-witted" he would march us all outside and get us doing star jumps for 10 minutes as though we were in the military. He'd get the blood flowing to our brains and then march us back inside. But his bark was very much worse than his bite.

Looking back, I can see that, actually, my dad was born to teach. He had that rare gift of treating every child individually. He was respectful not just of their talents but, if need be, of their limitations. He understood that academia wasn't necessarily for every child.

His pupils, aged five to 11, came from every walk of life, from landowning families to the poorest kids, who'd walk to school in rags, warmed by a hot potato in their pockets.

For financial reasons, many of them would leave education by 13, but in that little school, run by my dad with just one other teacher, the ethos was to make the most of every minute available. So he did all he could to make it fascinating and to draw every child into a magical world of learning.

As a result, we seemed to do wonderful, interesting things almost daily. If, for example, there was a submarine in the harbour in Derry, he'd take a gaggle of 30 kids the entire school down to see it. Or he'd lead us off to local places of interest in Donegal with our packed lunches. He brought learning alive for us.

He was a hugely intelligent man. His specialties were maths, Latin and literature. He'd been a teacher in the Navy and been on the minesweepers during the Second World War. He'd helped the men get through their watch by teaching them poetry. At Ballougry, too, he continued to impart his love of poems and drama. Unusually, every child who left that school at 11 had a working knowledge of Shakespeare.

He taught at the height of the Troubles. But, though he was the head of a Protestant school in a predominantly Protestant area, he educated us about the (Catholic) civil rights campaign. His view was that education was about equipping the young to make their own judgments. He ignored the nasty anonymous letters sometimes pushed through our letterbox. There was nothing cowardly about him.

Besides that, he was mostly loved in our community. Sometimes we would come home to find the letterbox crammed with a trout, normally a gift from one of the parents. My mum would complain that she had just polished the brass but my dad would look at the slimy trout's head, sticking out of the box, and smile. I think he'd have loved the letters that we received after his death, from pupils dating as far back as the 1940s. Every one of them wrote to say how much my father had influenced and shaped their lives.

At his funeral three years ago, I read Seamus Heaney's Digging. It was our favourite poem. It compares the cerebral work of poetry to the spadework of the gardener. The line, "By God, the old man could handle a spade" always reminds me of my dad, giving his gardening classes to the boys, as he always did, on the school vegetable patch, or rising early on winter mornings to shovel away the snow and light the school's ancient boiler. It was something he did for 30 years of his life.

I wonder now how my dad would have dealt with modern education the targets, the paperwork, the national curriculum and the endless exams. I doubt that it would have suited his quirky, individual style at all. He was a one-off. Ask any of his pupils

Since Amanda Burton, 50, appeared as Heather in the long running soap opera Brookside, she has starred in a raft of dramas including Peak Practice and Silent Witness, for which she won three National Television Awards. She now reprises her role as Clare Blake in Lynda La Plante's latest series of The Commander. She was talking to Daphne Lockyer

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