My best teacher - Olivia Williams

29th April 2011 at 01:00
In a school of `world-weary girls', the actress learnt that enthusing about literature was `cool'

I went to Primrose Hill Junior School (in north London), which was an amazing school. Primrose Hill is now a very smart area, but then it was very lefty, quite political and socially conscientious.

It was chaotic, but it managed to educate an incredibly diverse group. There were children who didn't read, whose first language wasn't English, who were in foster care. We went on a school trip to Northumberland - 70 inner-city 10-year-olds on a train to stay in a castle with far too few teachers. We were all given some yellow wool and we had to knit ourselves a yellow hat so we didn't get lost.

My favourite teacher there was Maggie Climie. She was a large lady with a huge personality, and very strict. In the last year at school, we did a project on the history of the world, starting with the Creation, moving on to the Romans - which is when we went to Northumberland - and up to the present day. I think I've still got that project somewhere.

Maggie was truly inspirational and a brilliant woman who managed to be terrifying and adored at the same time. Her lessons were very informal. She had her feet up on the desk and would chuck things at people if they were talking, but there was never a sense of it being abusive. No one misbehaved because she was big and imposing and slightly unpredictable. You were never sure what she was going to do, so you never put a foot wrong.

She was a very gifted teacher - she didn't talk down to the children and she was genuinely excited when something was going well. She had a big, throaty laugh and she clearly loved the company of children. There were two classes at the top of the school and you really wanted to be in hers. Once you were in her class, you were allowed to call her Maggie.

Then I went to South Hampstead High School, and I want to pay tribute to the English teachers there. I went on to read English at university and they inspired me.

First there was Mrs Frankel, then there was Fanny Balcombe, and Margaret Cullen took me through A-level. I see my career as a continuation of their teaching, in understanding character and dialogue.

By nature, I am lazy, but I will work incredibly hard at something I love. I would read a novel overnight, but it took a while to get my maths homework in. If we had to colour a map, my sister's would be beautifully coloured but mine would look like a small child had done it. I had zero application for something I didn't love, so I suppose I ought to apologise to the geography department.

But if the teaching inspired me, I would respond. I remember studying Tess of the D'Urbervilles for O-level with Fanny Balcombe and she had to stop reading and say, "Isn't this fantastic?". She was moved by it, really carried away.

It was a private school and she was teaching some pretty world-weary girls, but she convinced some of us that being enthusiastic was cool. She was quite cool herself, and the fact she loved her subject got through to these sulky girls.

We had a choir with the local boys' school and she was a member. She used to sit next to us; it broke down that barrier without losing her teacher status. She had an informality that didn't compromise her authority, which is quite a gift.

She went on to become a head and last year she asked me to give the valedictory speech at her school when she retired.

I don't recall being a particularly good student for her, although I loved her and loved her subject, but she wrote to me and said it would make her career feel joined up. It was wonderful to be able to do it.

Olivia Williams has starred in films including `Rushmore' and `The Sixth Sense', and is appearing in `Case Sensitive', starting on ITV1 on Monday, May 2. She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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