My best teacher - Judith Kerr

28th January 2011 at 00:00
After fleeing the Nazis, the future author found comfort in an uncompromising French teacher

As a Jewish family, we had to leave Germany during the Second World War. We went to France for a few years before coming to England so I went to about nine or 10 schools in all. That's the way it was - it didn't really bother me. In a way, it relieved me of some responsibility.

Madame Socrate, who taught at my second French school, was my favourite teacher. I was about 10 years old, and went to this school not being able to speak French at all. She was so marvellous because she refused to make allowances for me.

We had been at a small private school in Paris previously and there was one man there who spoke a little German and he used to take me aside. But I hated that. Children want to be like everyone else. I would rather hear French and not be able to understand it than be singled out.

Madame Socrate treated me like all the other children. I would do a dictation and there would be 132 mistakes in it. But she would just correct them all and make a funny face. I didn't know where one word ended and another began, but I would copy it all out and learn that way. When I got down to about 80 mistakes, she would smile and say, "Tres bien." By the end of the year, I could speak French like all the others.

She was very French and was little and quite intense. She had frizzy black hair and was, I suppose, in her late 40s. She wore lots of make-up and had dark eyes.

In the classroom, she was quite strict. I don't think the pupils thought about whether they liked her or not - she was just our teacher - but she was very nice. Once when we were all sitting working, she started throwing sweets out to us from the front of the class. I was so surprised.

One day there was a Shirley Temple film at the cinema and the teachers were allowed to pick two children from each class who had done particularly well to see it. Madame Socrate chose me and I was terribly thrilled.

The only school I really didn't like was my English boarding school. I was only there for five terms when I was 14. It was incredibly snobbish and the teaching was not very good. I remember a couple of girls came up to me and said: "Did your nanny have a Cockney accent? Because we've been talking about it and we've all agreed that your vowels aren't pure." Can you imagine?

My parents couldn't afford to send me there - it was some very kind friends who paid my fees - but that meant I could never complain about how much I disliked it.

Madame Socrate had been such a comfort. The strange thing is that, at the end of it all, my brother and I were top in French. She treated me like any other student, but she was hugely encouraging, not saying, "You can't do this, never mind." She knew I wanted to do it, and she helped me to do it.

Judith Kerr will reveal more in an interview, entitled 'In Conversation with Judith Kerr', at Hampstead's New End Theatre on January 26. Tickets are available from www.newendtheatre.co.uk. She was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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