My best teacher

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Being treated as an intellectual equal by her dry-humoured English teacher helped inspire this Bafta-winning actress's love of words and drama

Pat Stringer, my English teacher, was wonderful laid back, chilled out and kind with a dry sense of humour. She was my introduction to proper English and I loved being able to talk to her as opposed to the other kids. I felt she was treating me as an intellectual equal.

Mrs Stringer could see that I loved English and really brought it out of me. She was thorough and I loved getting it right for her. Later I won awards for English and theatre studies. I had won a scholarship to the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire, when I was 11. I was mad on dancing and it was wonderful because I could dance every day. The separation from my family in Cornwall was hard though. My mum is from Zimbabwe and there you keep your kids close, so it was heartbreaking for her to see her daughter go away to school.

On my first day the headmistress told my parents: "Say goodbye to your daughter, it will be fine." When mum said: "Well, I'll talk to her on the phone" she was told: "No, kids can't talk to their parents on the phone until they are 13 because we believe it makes them more upset to hear your voices." Mum said her heart exploded we weren't allowed to call home for two years. Can you believe that? She sobbed all the way back to Cornwall.

I started acting when I was 16. I had a back injury and couldn't dance and was hanging out after doing my GCSEs. I went to an audition in London for a film called Flirting, which was going to be shot in Australia and set in a girls' boarding school. I'd never acted before. I went up in my school uniform and got the part. After it finished I went back to school and at that point, I was still concentrating on my academic life.

I thought that would be it as far as the acting was concerned. But I kept getting offered more parts. I was doing films all the way through Cambridge Jefferson in Paris, Interview with a Vampire, The Journey of August King and even studied for my finals in Cannes, while I was there for the film festival.

I worked intensely at college. I wouldn't go to the bar or to parties so I probably ended up working as hard, if not harder, than the others. And I got a 2:1 which I was pretty pleased with.

Phyllis Lee, the anthropology tutor at Downing College, was an inspiring, fantastic teacher. She was an expert on elephants and primates, I think, and challenging from the word go. I am so glad that I went to university. It was a fantastic time and I learnt so much.

I remember vividly too Sister Frances and Sister Mary Joseph, who used to play football on the pitch with the boys at my primary school. I went to St Mary's Roman Catholic School in Penzance and was the only black girl and only non Catholic. It was wicked. I've always been slightly on the outside and I loved it.

I got into a lot of trouble because I was so free spirited. I was always getting sent down to the baby class. Once I had to go down for a whole week. You had to sit on this tiny chair, it's discipline through shame but it didn't make me feel ashamed.

St Mary's was a good school and set me up. The academic side was good but I think nowadays people have access to more profound psychological methods for nurturing a child shaming is not the way to go

Thandie Newton, 34, won a Bafta for her role in Crash. Her other films include Mission Impossible II, The Pursuit of Happyness, Beloved and Jefferson in Paris. Her latest film is Run Fat Boy Run, the romantic comedy with Simon Pegg, which is released today. She was talking to Martyn Palmer

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