My best teacher - Julia Donaldson

14th January 2011 at 00:00
A man with lots of bees in his bonnet inspired The Gruffalo's creator to pick up her pen and write

Mr Davie wasn't the most obviously charismatic teacher at school. He seemed quite old to us, and was bald-ish, with a slightly hooked nose and sallow skin. He wasn't a very dramatic person at all.

But for years and decades afterwards, in every day of my life, something would come to my mind that Mr Davie had said.

He was my teacher for my last two years at New End Primary in Hampstead, north London, in the late 1950s. I think nine is a terribly impressionable age: you're almost an unwritten-on slate.

We had mental arithmetic tests and learnt our tables, but we also did projects: whatever bee was in Mr Davie's bonnet. And he had a lot of bees in his bonnet. We spent a term on heraldry, moulding shields and crests out of plasticine. Somehow we picked up a lot of history and language along the way as well.

Mr Davie taught us spelling by means of a game, which consisted of us standing by the classroom wall and taking turns to spell words. If you got your word right, you moved up to overtake anyone who got words wrong. In this game, which is very unlike the dreary lists of spellings my own sons have to take home and churn out, everyone wanted to find out how things were spelt. Nowadays, the game would be considered un-PC, but I think everyone did learn to spell well out of it.

Rather than being in a gaggle or a gang, I had one best friend. Our school had very deep window ledges and my friend and I would snuggle up together, reading books. We had our own rules: it was very important that we said "eye-ther", not "ee-ther". We were terrible snobs, in a way, about language and words.

I used to go round with a notebook, noting conversations I overheard. My friend and I would have mini-adventures, daring each other to talk to strangers in a silly voice and see how they would react.

In the mid-1950s, Hampstead wasn't anywhere near as well-heeled as it is now. There were a lot of slum areas. During the harvest festival, we would make beautiful baskets of fruit and take them to poor, old people who lived nearby.

One day I found out the famous children's writer Eleanor Farjeon lived in Hampstead and I was absolutely desperate to meet her, so off I trotted. I think she was tickled pink that I thought she was a suitable recipient of my charity.

I was keen on writing, and my friend and I were always writing stories. Mr Davie was so encouraging. He didn't try to change our styles or channel us down some standard route. Instead, he said he was sure we would both grow up to be famous writers.

Julia Donaldson is a children's author, best known for 'The Gruffalo'. Her book 'Zog' was named Children's Book of the Year at the Galaxy National Book Awards in November. She was talking to Adi Bloom.

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