My best teacher

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
I was proud to win a scholarship to Bradford girls' grammar, a direct-grant school. It was a disciplined place and I was a bit of a rebel.

It is only looking back that I realise how lucky I was. The women who taught me were remarkable people, wonderful. It seemed that each one of them really loved the subject they taught and communicated this enthusiasm clearly to us. This was what made us want to learn. Even the Latin teacher caught our interest by telling us how she had spoken Latin to the priests during her visits to Rome.

We were all very competitive, but only with ourselves. Two of my best friends now are girls I met at school.

My favourite teacher was Miss Narey, who then became Mrs Collen. She came to the school when I was about 13, and she was my English teacher until I was 18. The first impression we had of her was of a gorgeous, glamorous woman. She would bound into the classroom with her books under her arm. All the teachers were enthusiastic, but the others were mostly older. We thought it was very romantic when she got married.

School was never a chore. Mrs Collen's personality helped - she was positive and cheerful, always smiling. She never sat behind the desk, like the others, but perched on the front, leaning forward and asking questions. She was totally wrapped up in what we were doing. Whenever we offered anything she would say "Good, good". This became her catchphrase.

I've noticed through my daughter's education that there's much more emphasis on set texts these days. We were encouraged to read around the subject, to read anything that would inspire. I remember taking a copy of Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber on a school trip. Mrs Collen asked what I was reading. I thought she would be unimpressed as it was nothing to do with school, but she said "Good, good" with all her usual enthusiasm. She was pleased that I was reading from choice.

Many modern teachers wouldn't have reacted like that, perhaps because of the pressures to focus on eam results. Reading set texts can easily be a task rather than a joy. Literature was a joy to me.

I think it is difficult for our children to understand what they are working towards. They are working for themselves, for qualifications, without necessarily knowing what these signify. For us, personal excellence was a result of what we did, not the motivation.

I remember Mrs Collen's method for proving to us that Thomas Hardy is a pessimistic writer. She asked us to supply a number between, say, one and 200 to generate a random page, then another number to select a specific line. Then we had to supply a question. A girl asked when the world was going to end. Mrs Collen looked up the random page and line. The text said:

"They all agreed that it would be one year from that date."

We were spooked and horrified, and convinced of his pessimism. I've used the same oracle to answer questions in my life. Because of things like this we adored Mrs Collen.

I was already an avid reader, but it was Mrs Collen who gave my favourite pastime validity. I had wondered if I was wasting my time reading, but she made me realise literature was special. Even the girls who went on to take sciences were readers. The sixth-form common room was always buzzing with talk about books.

Actress Mary Tamm was talking to Jonathan Harrington.


1950 Born in Bradford, Yorkshire

1969 Enters Rada

1972 Plays Hilda Ogden's daughter-in-law, Pauline, in Coronation Street

1973 Stars as Sigi in feature film Odessa File

1975 Plays Romana, assistant to Tom Baker's Dr Who, later Time Lord in her own right

1978 Marries. Daughter Lauren born a year later

1984 Plays Jennifer in the BBC's The Hello Goodbye Man

1995 Plays Penny Crosbie in Brookside

1998-99 Theatre roles, including Mari Hoff in Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Beverly in Abigail's Party

2000 Plays nymphomaniac alcoholic Portia Loomis in Channel 5 drama Headless

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