My best teacher - Shirley Williams

10th September 2010 at 01:00
The politician learned scholarship and poetry from a generation utterly dedicated to its task

I went to eight schools and had many wonderful teachers, but two stand out: Miss Jenkinson and Margaret Higginson.

Both taught English at St Paul's Girls School in London, which I went to in 1943. Miss Jenkinson was an expert on all things Chaucer: early English literature was her empire. She was a quiet, mild, sympathetic and sweet teacher.

The influence she had on me was one of scholarship; her love of literature. I was used to authority in its more raw forms: my parents were on the Gestapo blacklist during the war. The books my mother (author and campaigner Vera Brittain) wrote were burnt at Nuremberg (by the Nazis). If Britain was invaded, they were two of about 200 people who were to be put to death immediately. My brother and I were evacuated to America for three years when I was nine and he was 12.

So I was less used to Miss Jenkinson's quiet sort of authority, but my respect for her grew as I matured.

My second English teacher, Margaret Higginson, loved poetry. She knew so much by heart: from 17th-century poets such as John Donne and John Dryden to Samuel Johnson and William Wordsworth.

I can still recount reams of poetry by heart. In tranquil moments, it comes flooding back into my head.

Ms Higginson may have been quiet and shy, but she had a rod of steel at her core. She would not put up with any silliness in the classroom. She did not show any overt sympathy, but she was understanding if we were dealing with heartbreak or tragedy.

Like almost all the women at that school, Ms Higginson was single. In the 1940s there were simply not enough men to go round. If you were not married at 30, it was unlikely you would ever marry or have children. As a result, almost a whole generation of female teachers were incredibly dedicated: their emotional lives were played out in the classroom.

Margaret followed my career with great interest. Every couple of months, she would send me a postcard with a poetry quotation on it. It was always totally apt.

When I set up the Social Democratic Party, she sent a postcard with a quote from Dryden on it, about starting a new world. The postcards came to mark the highs and lows of my life.

Ms Higginson became high mistress of Bolton Girls' School, where she was greatly loved. All those Bolton girls from that era - (former Labour chief whip) Ann Taylor and (former Conservative vice-chairman) Baroness Morris - are very much "her girls". Ms Higginson kept in touch with all the girls who were intellectually interesting: she lit a fire in us.

Last year, I got some sense that she was dying. I went up to visit her and read her a couple of poems. She died the next day.

She left a fantastic legacy. I had always been deeply fond of poetry - my mother was a writer and my father was a professor - but Miss Higginson poured fertiliser over a planted field.

I'm not sure pupils get those sorts of deep routes into poetry any more. I was incredibly lucky to come into contact with such a treasure trove of knowledge.

- Baroness Williams, education secretary in the 1970s, broke with the Labour party to become a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. She was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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