My Best Teacher - Paterson Joseph

13th March 2009 at 00:00

Mrs Bird taught me during the final three years of primary school. She must've been in her early thirties and had a bubbly, quite mumsy way about her. She was encouraging even though I wasn't academic. I could read well from early on and could read aloud quite well, so she encouraged that rather than making me feel bad about the stuff I couldn't do.

She had some interesting punishments - she would get you to hold out your hand and put a piece of chalk or a drawing pin on your palm. Obviously your arms get sore after a while, and then she'd poke fun at you for not even being able to hold something so light, and you'd be laughing as well. Most of the time she would use coaxing techniques. She was from Sri Lanka and had a brilliant sense of humour, even when she was telling us off. I remember being so relieved after the open evenings when my parents came away laughing when they could've ended up being cross.

There was a special assembly for her retirement about two years ago and I went back to see her at the school. It was lovely. Everyone gave her presents and pupils past and present loved her.

I remember at the end of my time with her, when I would've been about 10, she wrote a dedication in these little autograph books we were passing round the class, along the lines of: "Life is not a comedy of errors, but all's well that end's well," and "Life can be a midsummer night's dream if you find it as you like it."

It was terrific. She had to explain to me that they were Shakespeare plays, but I remember thinking how brilliant and clever she was. Back then I didn't have any ambitions to be an actor, but she saw it in me.

English was my favourite subject by far. As a kid I was quite shy and inarticulate in public, but plays and amazing lines - Shakespearean lines for example - gave me the ability to articulate feelings and to sound erudite and intelligent. I desperately needed it and it's where I get my love of books and plays.

For a time, I can fill myself with the intelligence of somebody who I think is intellectually brighter than I am. It's a sort of magical dressing up box, but with words.

Quite a number of actors I know are dyslexic, but I think our love of language is to do with our love of communication. Confidence comes so much in your ability to articulate what you mean and how you are feeling.

When I went to my comprehensive straight after primary - an all boys' school - it was a world that I didn't recognise. I was one of 1,500 pupils and felt that I could have disappeared. I didn't have the confidence of the people I'd grown up with or any sense of community. It was just too much really, and I ended up playing truant for a number of years and then left when I was 15. I didn't get up to mischief or anything - I just went to the library or WHSmith and read books. It was just me on my tod.

I wouldn't recommend it though. I was very fortunate in that I managed to find a job that I love, which allows me to investigate life and educate myself in that way. But school is absolutely necessary, even if it can be tough. It just stands you in such good stead for having confidence in yourself.

Paterson Joseph's theatre credits include the title role in 'Othello', as well as parts in 'Henry IV', 'King Lear' and 'Hamlet'. He went to St Mary Magdalene's Primary School in Willesden Green, London, and is a patron of Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank.

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