My best teacher

20th April 2001 at 01:00
When I was five I found school so overwhelming I used to sit under the table. I was an anxious, nervous, shy child and Mrs Cheadle persuaded me to come out. I think she twigged I was being slightly bullied, because she used to let me hold her hand in the playground and very slowly I came out of my shell. It also helped when they found I was so short-sighted that I could hardly see what was going on around me.

I came from one of those families where there was quite a lot of shouting and plates whizzing through the air. I found school a great relief from home life because it was calm and ordered. After Rushmere infants, I went to Rushmere junior school in Ipswich and then, when I passed my 11-plus, to Northgate grammar school for girls where there were some fantastic teachers.

I particularly remember Miss Stone. She was rather round with iron-grey hair in a bun. Like all good teachers, she managed to make every child feel special. She decided that I'd make a good doctor despite being dreadful at maths. I bet if I'd stayed at the school I would have ended up as one. But I left after two years because my dad got a job in London.

My father was an FE lecturer in geography and then worked for a teaching union. I was rubbish at geography, but good at English, history and drama. I don't know why Miss Stone thought I'd make a good doctor. I wasn't good at science, but I was rather good at Latin and I think it was just decided I had the sort of brain that could be trained.

Next I went to the Cedars grammar school in Leighton Buzzard where I really flourished. I had a great teacher in Miss Metcalfe who taught maths and understood how frightened I was of it. She de-mystified numbers for me, a great achievement. I had two important teachers once I moved into O-levels. Mr Lloyd taught English and introduced us to the pleasures of culture. We saw A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Peter Brook. That's now become a classic production. And one half-term abou six of us went into school every day and listened to Wagner's entire Ring Cycle with him.

But Mary O'Keefe, who also taught English, is top of my list because she was such a great role model. She married another teacher at the school but kept her maiden name, which was remarkable then. He was younger than she was too, and their relationship seemed so passionate and romantic. We all clubbed together to buy them a wedding present.

I thought she was so glamorous. She wore nail polish and quite a lot of make-up, and lovely, slightly floppy crepe dresses. In those days women teachers weren't allowed to wear trousers. But one day she and all the other women teachers came in wearing trousers and won the battle.

I remember doing Milton and Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles with her. She had this spiky writing and would go through my essays writing very intelligent comments that actually added to the learning process, rather than making you think you'd got it wrong.

She sent me on to read English at Sussex. Then it was all a tutorial system - you didn't have to go lectures, which Miss O'Keefe knew would suit me fine. I kept in contact with her for a while, but we drifted apart and I'm really sad about that because she was a big influence on me.

Helen Boaden, head of BBCRadio 4, was talking to Pamela Coleman


1956 Born Colchester, Essex

1978 Care assistant with disturbed adolescents in Hackney, London

1979 First job in journalism, with New York radio station WBAI

1983 Reporterproducer BBC Radio, Leeds

1984 Wins Sony award for best current affairs programme, Aids in Africa

1987-90 Reporter File on Four; Women's Hour presenter from Manchester

1990 Radio industrial journalist and campaigning journalist of the year

1991. Editor, File on Four, wins second Sony award

1998 First women head of BBC current affairs and business programmes March 2000 Appointed controller of Radio 4

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