My best teacher - Kathy Lette

26th September 2008 at 01:00
The novelist reveals where she first learnt the power of the killer quip

I left school at 15. I wanted to be a writer and had written two novels by then. I was bored with school and hungry for life, but I feel inadequate now when I'm trying to help my kids with their homework, because I don't understand a lot of it.

I went to Sylvania High in Sydney, and couldn't understand why teachers spent the first seven years of your life teaching you to talk, and the next seven telling you to shut up. A report card my mother dug out from 1974 reads: "It is regrettable that Kathryn sees her class role as that of resident entertainment officer. In some areas her work is outstanding, but much of her time is spent standing outside the principal's office because of her classroom jinks."

I had one good English teacher called Mr Adams. He had a dry sense of humour, a big smile and was very ironic. He seemed happy to let me go on wild flights of fancy whenever I wrote something for him - he didn't cross out my work on the page like other teachers had done. He liked my verbal arabesques.

I think he was in his late 30s or early 40s and he looked like a rugby star with big broad shoulders. All the female teachers were in love with him, but not us girls (we were going out with world surfing champions, men who had the bodies of Greek love gods).

Everyone liked Mr Adams for his sense of humour. He had the ability to defuse a heated situation with a perfectly placed one-liner. The boys in those days were apes (they had gravel rash on their knuckles from dragging them across the pavement) and they loved turning everything into a puerile joke about breasts, but Mr Adams could always come back with something better. Even they gave him a grudging respect.

If someone's work was rubbish, he could always find something good in it. He would never impale anyone on the end of his pen with a D grade - he would find something to praise. Children thrive on praise.

The other teachers were brain-dead by comparison. On a summer's day we would be sweating inside hot classrooms with no air conditioning and yearning to be outside. You could see the sea and the waves breaking from the upstairs school windows. We had a creek at the back of the school and used to sneak down there as often as we could for a smoke, grope and swim.

We would be caught frequently, and if there were boys in the group they would get the cane while the girls had to watch. It was awful because they were trying not to cry. But if Mr Adams caught us, he would just set us additional homework.

I saw him last year - he came to a book signing in Australia and as soon as I saw him I said: "Hello, Mr Adams." If you meet your old teacher, you revert to your childhood. He was greyer than I remembered, but he still had a winning smile and twinkle in his eye. How fantastic that he was reading my novels.

He showed me that he'd kept things I'd written at the age of 13, and said he knew I would end up doing something interesting. I was touched.

Kathy Lette, 49, is the author of Mad Cow and Girls' Night Out. Her latest book, To Love, Honour and Betray, is published by Bantam at pound;14.99. She was talking to Mark Anstead.

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