My best teacher

5th January 2001 at 00:00
The first thing that happened when I moved from Wellingborough to Coventry was that somebody nicked my bike - that was my introduction to city life. But in terms of school it was better because Coventry was multicultural, so there was a greater acceptance of differences.

Because my sister, who was a year older than me, passed the 11-plus she went to a grammar school called Stoke Park. But by the time I went there it had become a comprehensive. It was becoming mixed gender and a little bit more multicultural.

The grammar school teachers were in a state of shock and I think that led to tensions. It was a traditional inner-city comprehensive in the sense that expectations for black children were very low. Because we were a little bit more gregarious, a little bit more expressive in terms of our physicality, I was encouraged to do sport like all the other black kids. I captained the rugby team and the football team, played football and rugby for my city and ran for my school, city and county. I was encouraged to play football and on my 14th birthday I signed for Wolves - I thought that was going to be my life.

In my third year, I got really tight with a maths-cum-computer science teacher who made me politically aware. He was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and he had been sent from London to Birmingham because the party was weak there.

He had a commitment to radical educational ideas and he got me thinking about why it was that black people were over-represented in sports teams but under-represented in academic clubs and the higher groups for maths, English and science. It really made me aware of what it meant to be used as a black person and to see black people as fodder for the school's sporting accomplishments and nothing else.

The one thing he did that was really important was buy me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 14. That was the turning point because I realised that education and intellectual developmet was liberation.

Malcolm's commitment to Islam made an impression on me. Although I had been brought up as a Christian, I hadn't taken it too seriously, but reading about his life changed that. I began to see faith as something inherently political and also as something that could empower me culturally. That's when I became much more serious about my faith and much more serious about learning as well. (The church I went to had colleges across America and that's how I ended up at an American university.) Until that teacher came along I had been in the lower groups and frequented ESN classes. He was only there for a year and I have to admit I can't remember his name.

My favourite teacher, though, was my RE teacher Julia Jewell. She's still at Stoke Park as head of humanities and I talk to her now and again. She was good because she realised that I had ability, and it was rare to find a white middle-class teacher who saw talent in black male children and was willing to cultivate it. Also, she didn't take any crap, which was important because there were a lot of teachers that were afraid of me as a black student and allowed me to get away with insults and messing around. That's what made her stand out from some of the other good teachers who were also supportive.

Theologian Dr Robert Beckford was talking to Yolanda Brooks


1965 Born in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

1984-1988 Studies religion and sociology at Houghton College, New York

1989 Takes MA at London Bible College

1992 Teaches at Queen's College, a Birmingham seminary. Starts part-time PhD at Birmingham University

1998 First book, Jesus Is Dread, published

1999 Presents programme in Channel 4's Untold series, gains PhD in theology and works with black men in prisons and young offenders institutes

2000 Presents Test of Time, BBC series. Dread and Pentecostal published

2001 Latest book, God of the Rahtid, to be published

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