My best teacher: Francesca Martinez

5th August 2011 at 01:00
The award-winning `wobbly' comedian and former Grange Hill star relished mainstream education, but hated her all-girls secondary

I had this awful PE teacher at high school, who forced me to play table tennis. She kept going, "Francesca, it's all in your head. Be positive." So I spent the entire time picking the ball off the floor. She treated me like I was a lazy and didn't want to do sport. But I have cerebral palsy. I used to say: "I'm brain-damaged, Miss."

From a young age I knew I didn't want to be pitied. I was confident and had a loving family. I felt capable. I thought if I made people laugh or was cheeky they wouldn't pity me. I used to forget what I couldn't do. I loved the game where you ring doorbells and run away. I just forgot I couldn't run away.

Pam Thomas, the head at my primary school, was lovely. She has recently retired after 34 years at the school. I have very fond memories of her. She treated all the kids as if they were her own.

You felt she knew every child individually, what you were good at, what you needed help with. The whole school made you feel loved. I never felt judged on my disability. I had a lot of friends there. There was a lovely ethos that everyone was equal and welcome. It came from Mrs Thomas at the top.

The teachers looked at kids' needs. My handwriting was messy, for instance, and I used to get frustrated. So they got me this big, old- fashioned typewriter. We had a game called traffic lights, where the teacher would shout green and you would run, and red and you would stop. Running wasn't my strong point, so they got me to shout the colours. It was sweet.

It made me a big fan of integrated education. Some people need specific support. But if young children are exposed to difference at an early age, they accept it and see the benefits of diversity.

We all have things we can't do. Disabled people just have things that are more visible.

My parents fought to keep me in the mainstream, and although my high school years weren't easy I wouldn't swap them. I never felt defined by what I couldn't do.

My school years were in stark contrast: primary school was fantastic; high school was a shock. I don't think I had a rough time just because I was wobbly. I was different in many ways. We had no TV because our parents wanted us to form our own opinions. I had been a tomboy, too, and all my friends had been boys.

But my parents worried about sending me to a mixed school because teenage boys might be rough and knock me over. So they got me into an all-girls school.

If a boy doesn't like you he will pick a fight, so you know. These girls were nice to your face and awful behind your back. I missed the male influence.

Then, when I was 14, I got a part in Grange Hill. The girls were flabbergasted. I was considered very uncool. Until then, I had thought that if you treat people nicely, they will treat you nicely back. Big mistake!

Grange Hill taught me to stand up for myself. But it was Mrs Thomas and her school that gave me the confidence to get through high school, weather that tough period and come out stronger at the end.

Francesca Martinez, an award-winning - wobbly - comedian, is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 5-28. She was talking to Douglas Blane.

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