My best teacher

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Mr Ian Cartwright taught me Spanish at Queen Mary's high school for girls in Walsall, from the age of 13 right through to A-level. He also ran a small guitar group once or twice a week, and I still play the Spanish songs we learned. I can also remember the verb to whitewash: encalar. It hasn't come in useful yet, but you never know.

Everybody loved him; he was so charismatic and a bit of a maverick. You could tell that he occasionally chafed against the formality of the school. He looked a bit like John Thaw, and with his exotic Burnley accent there were many girls who had a huge crush on him. He would talk to us as if we were adults, particularly when we reached the sixth form. He respected us as individuals. Our lessons were always informal. They would often start with free-flowing discussions in English, but he would suddenly say:

"Right, let's do all that again in Spanish!" My friend Jenny Plater and I were the mainstays of the guitar group. He would chain-smoke while he played and put his burning cigarette between the strings of the upper fret. We thought he was dead cool.

I think we formed a bond because he recognised how hard it was for me as one of four or five non-white girls in a school of about 500. It was never traumatic, but it is hard when everything is so Eurocentric - thankfully, that seems to have all changed now at Queen Mary's.

Mr Cartwright was very sensitive to my situation, perhaps because he taught a different language and culture, one that is so close to the Indian culture that I often feel an empathy with it. The Spanish have the same attitude towards children, mothers and food as they do in India. I once saw Lorca's The House of Bernardo Alba performed in India by Muslim women and it was overpowering. It affected me in a way that it had never done with European actors.

The seeds of my writing may have come from school, where I did a lot of creative writing, but it wasn't very good on drama. I only performed in school plays twice and that was towards the end of my years there. I played Caliban, then Rosina in The Barber of Sville, with Mr Cartwright as my father. He made me write all his lines on my arm for our duets, because he didn't have the time to learn them and "it wasn't as if it was an exam". I had to whisper them to him as well as sing my own lines.

I used to resent other girls talking about him in the same way. He was our Mr Cartwright. The loyalty kept our sad guitar group going for many years, and it also made everyone work really hard for him. He always got good results out of us: we wanted to please him, which is what being a good teacher is all about. Despite this, English was always my favourite subject and I used to wish desperately that he taught me that as well.

He is the main reason why I remember Queen Mary's with such fondness. I don't have the same sort of feeling for my primary schools. I lived in a small village just outside Wolverhampton, but I used to go to the school where my mum was a reception teacher, about 10 miles away. I lived in the protective bubble of being a teacher's child, but I know the other three non-white children were bullied mercilessly.

I didn't lose touch with Mr Cartwright when I left for university. He retired in 1997, which was the first year I was invited back for prize-giving day. I always seek him out and we chat like old friends, but I don't think I will ever be able to call him Ian - he will always be Mr Cartwright.

Actor and writer Meera Syal was talking to Alison Shepherd THE STORY SO FAR

1963 Born in Essington, Wolverhampton

1974Attends Queen Mary's high school for girls, Walsall

1984Graduates from Manchester university with joint honours in English and drama. Stars in Sue Townsend's The Great Celestial Cow at the Royal Court Theatre

1989 Writes and stars in My Sister Wife for the BBC's Screen 2 series, which later wins four awards

1993 Writes award-winning film Bhaji on the Beach

1996 First novel Anita and Me wins Betty Trask award 1997 Begins writing and performing in Goodness Gracious Me

1998 Made an MBE

1999 Life isn't all Ha, Ha, Hee Hee published by Transworld

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