My best teacher

8th September 2000 at 01:00
It was quite by chance I ended up in Duke Schirmer's English class. My father was a foreign correspondent for Danish television and I spent my formative years in New York. When I joined Mamaroneck high school as a freshman in grade 9, aged 13, I was offered a wide choice of classes. Duke Schirmer taught creative writing and I was attracted by his name. To be honest, I thought he was going to be black - I was very "right on".

Mamaroneck was an enormous school. There were 2,600 students and I knew no one. It was a state school and at first I was terrified by its size. I'd been to many schools before - I'd been thrown out of a couple - but never anywhere so large. In the American system, you have a home room where you gather at the beginning of the day to say the pledge of allegiance, and then you all go off to different classes and you may never see your classmates again for the rest of the day.

When I was there in 1971 all the male teachers wore suits, but Duke Schirmer dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and this was considered a little weird. He was a very intense man with thick glasses, and the fact that he taught a lot of his classes standing on his head was also seen as extremely peculiar.

I never found out the reason he stood on his head. I think it helped him to think more clearly, or so he claimed. I tried it myself, but withoutsuccess. I'm not physically adept; I can't even do a forward roll.

He taught me for just a year and it was probably one of the most creative years of my life. He didn't believe in giving marks for grammar or punctuation; he implied that the mechanics of writing were not important if you had something to say. When I wrote a short story for him called "Army", he simply wrote across the bottom: "Keep writing like a fiend". My story was about a soldier who goes out to Vietnam thinking he is fighting for freedom and realises all he is doing is killing women and children. The Vietnam war was a big issue at the time, particularly growing up in America, but it was something about whih I could have known nothing whatsoever at the age of 13.

Those few words of encouragement had a fantastic effect on me in terms of wanting to write and be involved in writing. When I came to England the following year to go to boarding school to do my O and A-levels, I was incensed by being made to read booksand take them apart grammatically and look at structure all the time.

Duke Schirmer had an energy and a love of teaching and of his subject that I don't think I came across again until I went to university. We called him Duke, which was pretty far out, and for much of the time we would sit on the floor with our legs crossed, which seemed very cool and hip.

His teaching method was to write a word on the board and you would have to say what immediately sprung into your mind - a technique I use now if I get stuck when I'm writing. Duke Schirmer was interested in unlocking creativity and I suspect that's why he didn't wear a jacket and tie and why we called him Duke and why lessons were very relaxed. We were allowed to be free in our thinking.

I want to find him again. I've been commissioned to write a book about my American childhood and I am going to try to track him down. I want to say to him: "Thank you so much for what you did for me."

Comedienne and author Sandi Toksvig was talking to Pamela Coleman


1958 Born in Copenhagen

1967 Moves to New York

1971 Attends Mamaroneck high school, New York

1972 Attends Tormead school, Guildford, Surrey

1977-80 Gains first-class degree in law from Girton College, Cambridge

1980 Joins Nottingham Playhouse Repertory Theatre

1988-95 Performs stand-up at London's Comedy Store

1995 Sails around Britain for TV series Island Race

1996 Tales from a Norse's Mouth published, first of five children's books

1997 onwards Panellist on TV's Call My Bluff

1998 First novel, Whistling for the Elephants, published November 2000 Children's book, The Troublesome Toothfairy, due to be published

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