My best teacher

12th May 2000 at 01:00
The story so far

1968 born Johannesburg

1973 Begins school

1987 First year at Witwatersrand university. Starts rock climbing

1992 Gap year in Europe

1994-5 Masters degree in media studies at Rhodes university, Grahamstown

1995 Applies to become the female member of the South African climbing team's Everest expedition, and is chosen from 200 applicants

1996 Climbs Everest

1997 Publication of book about expedition, Everest: Free to Decide

1999 Becomes the first woman to climb Everest from both sides

2000 Publication of book, Just for the Love of it August 2000 Plans to climb K2, on ChinaIndia border

Three teachers influenced my life and they all taught history at the private all-girls school in Johannesburg where I spent my school days from five to 18.

St Andrew's school for girls occupied a beautiful old house that had once belonged to a mining magnate. Some pupils boarded, but I was a day girl.

From about the age of 12 I was taught by Mrs Heynes. She was approachable and she made history interesting. I remember a project about Mesopotamia. We had to find what pictures existed and try to recreate a plan of Babylon and discover what it must have been like to live there.

Mrs Cleal, who taught me for only a few months when I was 15, had a passion for her subject that she was able to communicate. I already liked history because of Mrs Heynes, but through Mrs Cleal I became fascinated.

She introduced me to the idea that history is a construct rather than a set of facts; that the views of historians are informed by their own time and assumptions. What particularly caught my attention was the realisation that history is a tapestry woven from people's opinions and I was part of it.

Mrs Cleal brought history up to today. She made us realise that our lives were part of history. This was in the Eighties, a time of sanctions and political rioting and emergency powers in South Africa.

Although she was teaching us medieval Europen history, stuff that was on the syllabus, she always put it in a much wider context. She made us see what was happening around us and challenged us to think about our own period.

This inspired me for the first time to consider research rather than simply learning and memorising facts. Mrs Cleal taught me for only six months, but in that time she made by far the strongest impression on me.

Mrs Ede, my next history teacher, was also vice-headmistress. She was much more traditional, but she was also wide ranging in her interests and immersed in current affairs, so she kept up the link between what was happening around us and the history we were studying.

Mrs Heynes was in her late thirties, tall and thin, a warm and pleasant women. Mrs Cleal was in her forties and fairly small, compact and sturdy, and Mrs Ede was tall and angular with pince-nez glasses. Both Mrs Heynes and Mrs Ede followed my exploits on Everest in the newspapers and I was invited to give a talk to the school. It was the first time I'd been back.

I went to Witwatersrand university in Johannesburg to read history and it was there I got into climbing. In my first year I met Mike Cartwright, who was studying computers, and he taught me how to rock climb.

Although St Andrew's had been a sporty school, I wasn't interested in hockey and netball and all that "I win, you lose" thing. Suddenly, I found a sport I could enjoy. It was quite a revelation. I'd kind of written off sport and then I found this wonderful activity taking place in incredible outdoor settings. Mike was an influential teacher in a different sphere. So was a young British climber, Stephen Kelsey, who ran an equipment shop where all the rock club members hung out.

Stephen was a mountaineer rather than a rock climber. He taught me mountaineering, snow and ice and glaciers and weather reading and avalanches and all that stuff and set me off on my life of adventure.

Cathy O'Dowd was talking to Pamela Coleman TES FRIDAY May 12 2000 .

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