My best teacher - Lenny Henry

29th October 2010 at 01:00
There was early success as a class joker, but the comedian and actor says his education is unfinished business

My mum looked out of the window at the local school and that is the one I went to. It was the Blue Coat School, a secondary modern in the West Midlands.

This was a sink school for working-class kids in the Dudley area. There were a lot of factories around and it was understood that we would end up working in them.

There was quite a lot of racism at the school. I must have been in a fight every day for one term, until I learnt to walk away. It was tough. Teachers would give you a backhand round the face, hit you with a cane or throw board rubbers at you.

Most would hit us with plimsolls or a stick. We'd had enough one day and hid a teacher's stick. He went nuts, but the minute he left the room there was an explosion of laughter.

Then there was Jim Brookes, my science teacher. He was neatly dressed, always well coiffed, with a tie, and like so many great teachers he was really funny. He knew how to pitch a lesson, how to be on our level. He had been in the forces and knew how to disarm a kid if he was attacked, but never raised his voice.

I was not that good at science, but I worked hard at it because I did not want to let him down. He recognised that I was good at silly voices, so he gave me a reel-to-reel recorder to practise them at the back of the class.

My friend Graham and I would just do stupid stuff and make our own version of The Goon Show. Mr Brookes was the first to recognise that I was funny, that I had something. He was an encourager. But I still left education early.

We were never encouraged to do O-levels at school and university was never mentioned. I'm sad about that. There were lots of us who should have gone on to university, but because we were working class it was not our place to go. I left school at 16 with seven CSEs and went on the New Faces talent show.

My mum was worried about my leaving education but never tried to dissuade me from going into TV. Immigrant families always want their children to have a back-up plan, but she changed her mind when I bought her a house.

I always felt my education was unfinished. I went on to do my O-levels at a college in Preston and have since done a BA and an MA. I'm about to start a PhD, studying the representation of black people in the media, at the Royal Holloway (University of London).

Mr Brookes was definitely one of my inspirations for pursuing education, as well as my mother, who passed away in 1998. They gave me the impetus to re-engage with education in a serious way. All you need is one person to believe in you and give you that thirst for knowledge.

Mr Brookes knew how important he was to me. He is such a funny, charming man. He was an enabler, and made me feel like I could do stuff. He spoke in a way I could understand. He was nothing like those teachers who write on the board, never speak to you or make eye contact with you and bollock you when you get it wrong.

That's not being a good communicator. Mr Brookes had compassion and found a way. Good teachers are extraordinary the way they do that. We all bloom towards the sunlight. All we want, at the end of the day, is to be told we can do it.

Comedian and actor Lenny Henry will host the 2010 Teaching Awards, which will be broadcast on BBC2 at 6pm on October 31. He was speaking to Hannah Frankel.

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