My best teacher - Levi Roots

13th May 2011 at 01:00
The Reggae Reggae sauce creator blended well with an eloquent English mistress who taught him how to read

I couldn't read, write or even spell my name when I joined Tulse Hill School (in south London) at the age of 11 in 1969. In Jamaica, where I was born and raised by my grandmother for the first 10 years of my life, education was expensive and so I didn't go to school.

Tulse Hill was 80 per cent black and most of the kids there were born in Jamaica. They came to England in the mid '60s and so they were years ahead of me academically.

Because I couldn't read, I sat at the back of the class with the boys who misbehaved, while the bright boys sat in the front. We called the front of the class the North and the back the Deep South.

I was humble in class, because I wanted to learn and felt a bit embarrassed about not being able to read. Outside class, I was rowdy and seen as a cool country boy who could open a bottle with my teeth or a stick. My peers bigged me up.

English was my favourite subject at school because it was in this class that I learnt how to read. Having books available to me and knowing that I was about to learn what was in them was exciting. Miss Corkery was my English teacher and she often read books to the class. My favourite book we read with Miss Corkery was King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard. She read it again, a few months later, after I asked her to, which was pretty special for me. I don't think she would have done it for anyone else. Miss Corkery not only taught me English but other subjects, including geography and technical drawing. Thanks to her patience and the tenacity of my mum, who read Enid Blyton books to me, I started reading properly by the age of 14.

Miss Corkery was very attentive and caring to her 30-plus class of mainly Jamaican boys. We would be really wild in class and then quiet when she came in. You couldn't be rude to Miss Corkery because she was so kind, calm and upper class. She was also well dressed and eloquent. I wanted to speak like her.

At 12 or 13, we never fancied Miss Corkery, as she wasn't one of the young sexy teachers who got your hormones going. She was probably in her forties and to us that was old.

My school reports improved each year. In 1973, Miss Corkery wrote "does good work when he tries, but gets distracted". By the last year of school I was in the North side of the class, which meant I was now one of the clever ones who could answer Miss Corkery's questions. This made me feel very proud.

I saw Miss Corkery for the last time in assembly on my final day at school. She signed my form book and wished me good luck. I left school in 1974 with several CSEs and got a job as a trainee engineer.

While I thought highly of Miss Corkery, I didn't think much of my school in general. The school never pushed its mainly black pupils academically, but encouraged sports in the hope of developing athletes to represent Britain. Despite this, quite a few people left Tulse Hill and did well, including poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Levi Roots is a reggae musician, television personality, celebrity chef and entrepreneur. His new book, 'You Can Get It If You Really Want: Start Your Business, Transform Your Life' is out now. He was speaking to Adeline Iziren.

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