My best teacher - Jane Green

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Terrifying yet twinkly, 'Mamzelle' gave the chick-lit queen a lifelong love of French

I went to South Hampstead High School in north London, which was in many ways very good for me and in many ways very bad. It was terrifically academic and I wasn't academic at all. I really loved the arts. My favourite subjects were English, art and Latin, but South Hampstead was never strong on the arts. It is often harder for people who are more creative to fall into those rigid academic environments. But part of me thinks that had I gone to a school that was more progressive I might not have done any work at all. We didn't have much choice at South Hampstead.

There were two teachers: my best and my favourite. Mr Hardy, the art teacher, was without doubt my favourite (art was the one thing I was effortlessly very good at). He brought a great deal of fun and possibility to the classroom, and spoke to us as adults. He was one of the youngest teachers I think; he certainly was in spirit.

But the best and most influential was my French teacher. I didn't like learning the language, but I loved being able to speak it. My parents had a house in France and I spent many holidays there, so I spoke a lot of French.

Left to my own devices, I could happily go off and converse in French. But to sit down and study grammar and verbs and all of that wasn't quite so good. This is why I am so grateful to Mamzelle, because it is because of her that I learnt the basics.

Mademoiselle Muller (she was only ever called Mamzelle) was a bit of a legend in the school. She was a tiny French woman, but wide, and wore 1950s almond-shaped glasses. Her hair was short and curly and she was utterly terrifying. She seemed ancient but was probably only in her late 40s or early 50s. The school was in fear of her classes because she was known for doing things like throwing objects at you. She was said to beat you with the window stick if you didn't do your homework.

For me, she was terrifying but with a twinkle in her eye, and you could see that she took delight in her reputation. For that reason I never found her totally scary. I found her quite funny in some ways.

Once I was lost in a daydream, gazing out of the window. I forgot that I was in French and was whistling away rather poorly when all of a sudden something landed on my head. It was the blackboard rubber, which Mamzelle had flung at me, exclaiming: "There is a bird in this room." That was classic Mamzelle: she brutalised us with a twinkle in her eye. It always felt like she was putting on the serious face.

French was one of the few subjects that I actually worked quite hard at - I was so frightened. I learnt all my vocabulary and got either a grade A or B for my O-level. I remember Mamzelle going up to my mother and father at parents' evenings and saying: "Well, how about your daughter?" Certainly, without Mamzelle at the helm, I would not have got by.

There was a lot of fear in my learning, but that was not a bad thing. I was lazy and today would probably have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I couldn't focus on anything for longer than about three minutes.

I wasn't present for much of my school life: there in body but not in spirit. I certainly had a very active imagination and I did tend to spend far more time in my head than I did in the classroom.

The key was that Mamzelle engaged me. You never knew what was going to happen, which made it quite exciting. You had to pay attention. One of the girls had to wear a skirt on her head during a lesson as a punishment. Mamzelle was eccentric.

I always felt she liked the troublemakers - me and fellow writer Freya North (we were best friends). We would sit together and cause trouble. She liked our spirit.

I left South Hampstead at 16 and took A-levels in French, art and history of art at a private art college in Belsize Park nearby. I believe Mamzelle retired. I'm sure the school has never been the same.

Jane Green is regarded as one of the founders of chick lit and her books have sold 2.5 million copies. Her latest, 'The Love Verb', is published by Michael Joseph. She was talking to Sheryl Simms.

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