My best teacher - Patrick Ness

7th May 2010 at 01:00
The most captivating teacher came with the most boring subject, but he hooked the US author and took note of his 'hare-brained' ideas

I went to elementary school in America in the late Seventiesearly Eighties, but I was quite bored. I wasn't rowdy or rude, just bored. I would pretend that I was sick a lot so that I wouldn't have to go. Then when I was in fifth or sixth grade (aged 10-12) a gifted programme was introduced. The aim was to challenge the clever kids, so we were put in a different class.

In fact I wrote a story called The Gifted, which is in my short story collection (Topics About Which I Know Nothing). Although it is a horror story and the teacher in it is similar to my teacher, my actual one was better.

My father was in the military so I moved around a lot when I was very young. He retired when I was eight, so by the time I went to junior high school at 12 I stayed put. But one of my most significant teachers was my kindergarten teacher in my first elementary school in Hawaii.

She was called Mrs Nishimoto and I just loved her. And I was in love with her in that way you are when you are five years old: I wanted her to be both my wife and my mother. When we moved away that summer I made my parents find her so that I could say goodbye.

At the time the approach to education was to try something new. In my English class at high school this meant that we didn't read the usual canon of literature.

On the one hand it was interesting because we read different kinds of books and poetry, but if every English class is like that you end up not reading the canon at all. So instead of Jane Austen I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

By the time I went to the University of Southern California I had learnt a lot about essays and argument, but I had hardly read any of the classics that I needed to have read. It meant that I had a lot of catching up to do.

From a young age, I was always writing, and my English teacher at high school, Mrs St Clair, was particularly good. But the very best teacher I ever had was Stephen Manning, one of my university professors.

The thing about him was that even though he taught the subject I liked the least - Wordsworth - it was still the best class I had. You could tell that he really loved his students, as did Mrs St Clair.

Both teachers were interested in argument and hearing new ideas, no matter how hare-brained. They got us thinking. Their teaching style made a real impression on me. In fact it still does. The experience influenced how I have taught adults creative writing as well as how I treat the teenagers I speak to when I go into schools.

Nothing children ever say is too silly. Teenagers are not too young to have serious ideas. In my work, I try to think of what I liked as a teenager and remember how Mrs St Clair took us seriously. It was an unpatronising approach to teaching. Principle number one when writing for teenagers is to respect them.

Patrick Ness is the author of 'The Ask and the Answer', shortlisted for the 2010 CILIP Carnegie Medal. His final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, 'Monsters of Men', is out now. He was talking to Anne Joseph.

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