My Best Teacher - Margaret Drabble

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
The idea that what's difficult can be conquered, and what's boring can be made interesting was passed on from the author's outstanding English teacher, who had a lasting impact

My mother was a teacher and had high educational expectations. I think these were met, but probably at some cost. I don't know how she could have expected more - I did work very hard.

From the age of 13 I went to The Mount School, a small, private Quaker girls' school in York, which I enjoyed very much. It was open-minded, inquiring and non-imperial; we didn't do wars. There was a non- authoritarian style of teaching - you were supposed to find your own way towards what you were learning about. It was a school that allowed individual thought. I was a boarder and that was fine, it wasn't very far away and at 13 you are jolly glad to get away from home.

I loved English and French and I quite enjoyed Latin. I also loved biology and physics until the maths got too hard for me. When I arrived, the girls who had been there since the age of 11 had all done Pi, and I hadn't. I never discovered what Pi really was and after a year of maths I decided that I needed to get out of it as quickly as I could. At 14 we were allowed to drop it and so I did. I don't think I should have been allowed to really.

There were several teachers with whom I enjoyed learning but one, my English teacher, was really outstanding. Her name was Joan Scalway. She was an extremely clever, intelligent, quick woman - very conscientious, but she made you think for yourself. She encouraged you to the limit of what you could read and always made you feel that it was an adventure and if it was difficult it could be conquered; if it was boring we could make it interesting. She was a very gifted teacher, in fact as good as anybody that I came across at university or anywhere else since.

As well as my mother, Mrs Scalway was instrumental in encouraging me to sit the entrance exams for Cambridge. There was a little group of us who did the Oxbridge tests and I remember that time with such pleasure as we had seminars with Mrs Scalway in her study. We would go along and read books that weren't on the syllabus.

After I had left school I wrote her a letter or two. I think she was a little disappointed that I got married so quickly after Cambridge because she thought that all I was going to do was have babies and she had clearly hoped for better things from her students.

In the mid to late 1950s, women students were completely divided. We wanted to go to university, we wanted to have careers, but we wanted to have a boyfriend and an engagement ring too. Many women at that time landed themselves with babies at a young age before getting their career going. I don't regret it. That was what my life was, what made me a writer.

Mrs Scalway died very suddenly in the early 1960s. She was of no age at all. I would say she was in her forties. I was very upset and it has been a great sadness to me that I wasn't able to communicate with her as I had hoped.

I was told about her death by a friend of hers who wrote to me. She mentioned how happy Mrs Scalway had been when my first novel (A Summer Bird-Cage) was published in 1963. I have still got that letter somewhere. I was pleased that she knew I kept going


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