My best teacher - Bettany Hughes

19th March 2010 at 00:00
The academic, author and TV presenter learnt to make every second count

I went to Montpelier Primary School in Ealing (west London) and I had a great time. It was that period when education was very, very creative.

There was one particular teacher, Miss Cawthorne, I was a little bit in love with. This was the 1970s and I remember her wearing flared jeans and very colourful knitted tops. She was exciting and vibrant.

I used to read the whole time and she really encouraged me. She was the first teacher who said: "This is a good thing that you're doing; stick at it, it is worthwhile." I really remember that. When you are a child you just do things, you don't know what you are doing, and she was the first person who impressed on me the value of it.

I remember one day she was a bit late and she came in and we had been mucking around. She was very nice - she wasn't a strict teacher - but she said: "Do you realise that 10 minutes you have wasted, you will never get back?" I can still picture the classroom and her coming in and saying it. I was only seven or eight and I just hadn't thought of it like that, but it really stuck with me. I make every minute count now.

She was inspiring and good at making sure you took a big fact or a revelation or a moral value from what you learnt, but in a very light-handed sort of way.

I felt very grateful to her because I was completely mad about animals. We had two white gerbils called Starsky and Hutch in the classroom and they escaped one weekend and got themselves into the paint cupboard. We had those big pots of powder paint and I remember opening the cupboard and finding the gerbils dead and covered in paint. I was destroyed by this discovery and I remember her being so sympathetic and kind. She was a very warm-hearted person.

She was one of those people who obviously loved what she was doing. It was a very inspiring place to be.

The headmaster was Vincent McQueen. He had been a prisoner of war, but I only learnt that later; it was not something he ever talked about. He had this absolute zest for life. He was always very dapper - he wore a cravat, not in a posh way but in a "We're lucky to be alive, we're going to make the most of our time here" way. It was a school imbued with a forward-looking atmosphere.

I luckily got a bursary for a Girls' Day School Trust school (Notting Hill and Ealing High School), where I flourished.

Miss Cawthorne had encouraged me to read and said it would always serve me well, and at secondary school it was about how your life could be immensely fascinating if you kept up that study.

I also went to a Sunday school where there was a "leftfield" woman called Celia Jordan. She was bohemian and we never studied texts. Instead, we used to make 3D models of feisty females from the Bible out of egg boxes and recycled things.

I still remember the smell of the glue and that gloopy feeling of making papier mache and I can still see the women standing there with their glittering daggers and their golden goblets.

Bettany Hughes presents 'Alexandria', a feature-length documentary on More4 next Wednesday, part of an eight-part Channel 4More 4 season on the ancient world. She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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