My best teacher

18th May 2001 at 01:00
I had two great teachers. One was my A-level law teacher Mr Hopwood and the other was my English teacher Mr Swain. In terms of my career, Mr Swain was a big influence, but in terms of my development as a person Mr Hopwood was more important.

They taught at Lowlands sixth form college in Harrow on the Hill. I came from an all-girls' school in Harrow, where if you weren't good at sports or maths or biology you had no place there. Individuality was stamped on. I felt very stupid and academically very bored.

Coming from an all-girls' school where the teachers were all female, generally over 50 with stiff hairstyles and stiff suits, to have a male teacher in itself was extraordinary and to have a young male teacher was unbelievable.

Mr Swain was probably in his early thirties and very funny, very witty. He was a natural performer so he made everything we did with him exciting and alive.

I remember doing Hamlet and he really made us get into the character, the personal dilemma this man was going through. I worked really hard on this essay and I got an A minus. I had never got an A at anything. I think this was a turning point in my life when education was finally working for me and it wasn't about slogging away and banging your head against a wall.

I vaguely knew I wanted to be an actress, but at my old school they thought that was nonsense. Mr Swain gave me the confidence back. He said to me, "Why don't you do a bit of writing for the college magazine? Why don't you join the drama group?" He had a very big influence on my life. He was completely different to any teacher I have ever met.

Mr Hopwood taught law. I come from a family of lawyers and barristers and I started off doing history A-level, but I hated it so I ended up doing law. Mr Hopwood was a working-class law teacher from a mining village in Wales and very left-wing. There I was, a nice middle-class lawyer's daughter, young and naive, and Mr Hopwood was the first person to make me aware that we ren't all middle class.

I would go home at night to my dad and say Mr Hopwood said this and my Dad would say well, you go back and you tell Mr Hopwood this. So I would have these huge fights with him in the class. But he never was horrible to me. Mr Hopwood changed my life - I became quite left-wing afterwards because of his classes - and my relationship with my father was never the same again. Once I couldn't do an essay and my dad wrote it for me. I got an E for it. My father never forgave him.

I remember my parents going to a parents' evening and my dad - who had a grudging respect for Mr Hopwood - saying to him, "Is she going to get to university. We're worried she doesn't do enough work." Mr Hopwood replied, "We don't see education here as a means to an end, we see it as an end in itself. We want our students to enjoy studying, and whatever they choose to do with their lives really doesn't matter. We just want them to grow while they are here." My father said that completely changed his perception of education.

There are certain teachers that catch you at a moment and spin you off on a whole other path and they never know it. I was always too shy to say it at 17 but I would have loved to have said to Mr Swain and Mr Hopwood. "You changed my life.'

Actress Tracy-Ann Oberman was talking to Harvey McGavin


1968 Born, London

1979-84 Heathfield school, London borough of Harrow

1984-86 Lowlands sixth form college, Harrow

1986-89 Studies drama at Manchester University

1989-91 Central School of Speech and Drama, London

1991-95 Member of Royal Shakespeare Company

1996 Stand-up comic. First TV appearance in comedy series Loved by You

1998 First West End theatre role as Faye in Joe Orton's Loot

1999 Stars as Beverley in Granada TV's Bob Martin, starring Michael Barrymore 2001 Second series of Bob Martin. Starring as Marion in film version of award-winning BBC2 comedy drama Marion and Geoff

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