My best teacher - Meg Rosoff

26th August 2011 at 01:00
Tale of the man who lit up the American novelist's primary years had a chilling ending

I went to state schools in the US where I was always top of the class. Then, for my last three years of schooling I went to Beaver Country Day School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a small, private, all-girls, not particularly academic school where there were more kids like me. I was very studious. I was also a good all-rounder, which was very confusing, although the minute I walked into physics I never understood a word of it. I never understood a word of advanced algebra, either. But it was the kind of school where if they knew you were bright, they gave you the benefit of the doubt.

There was a point when - as you do - I wanted to please my father (a surgeon) and go into science, but it was clear that I didn't really have any aptitude for it. I did bolt out of the biology room when they were dissecting giant African cockroaches ...

We had amazing English teachers. Miss O'Connell was the one who changed my life. She was very acerbic and just fantastic. She taught you to think and to write and to love literature. And, actually, the English I was taught at school was generally better than the English I was taught at Harvard. It was the intimacy of it; there were 22-25 in a class, whereas at Harvard there were 600 people in a Shakespeare lecture.

At Harvard there was this wonderful man, Dimitri Hadzi. He wasn't a proper teacher; he was the professor of sculpture. I adored him. He was the one who said to me, "What are you doing here with all these stiffs? Go to Europe, go to art school." And on his advice, I did. I went to England and never looked back.

But the best teacher I ever had was at my primary school - Angier School in Newton, Massachusetts, when I was 11 and in fifth grade. I remember shouting, "Yes, I have Salinger!" for my class teacher. He was legendary. He must have been in his 30s then and he was utterly, utterly magnetic. I can't even begin to describe what made the classroom atmosphere so amazing. There was a buzz. I recall going into class and it being the most exciting experience of my life. And I was always being challenged. Every Friday he would give us a question like, "How much do the oceans weigh?" and we would have an hour to try and figure it out using all the reference books around the room - this was well before computers. And it was always an abstract question like that. If one person got it right they would get 100 points. Forty-something years later I still remember the day when I got the answer.

About five years ago I was at the Children's Literature New England conference and I met a librarian who was wearing a badge that said "Waban", which was a tiny place, a subset of Newton, and where I grew up. She asked if I had gone to Angier School; she was the librarian there. I immediately wanted to know if she remembered Mr Salinger. I explained how I had never forgotten him, how I had wanted to get in touch with him to tell him how much he had changed my life. She went very pale, then went out and brought back something she had printed from the computer. It was the story of his arraignment. He had been jailed for rape over a period of six years with a young girl.

The extraordinary irony of all this was that although I kept Googling the story, I couldn't find anything. But I kept looking because I wanted the facts. I found myself right back in his classroom thinking about how to find information. I searched for lateral words and then one day I found the whole court case.

'There is No Dog' by Meg Rosoff is published by Penguin in September. She was talking to Anne Joseph.

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