My Best Teacher;Interview;Dee Dawson

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
When I was seven I couldn't read or write. I'd changed schools five times because of my father's job. Just when I felt I was settling in, it always seemed to be time to move on again. Then I went to Ennersdale junior school in Lewisham, south-east London, and after being there for a whole year I was top of the class. I was given a prize - a book of Grimm's fairy stories, which I still have - and I stayed in the top two or three all the time I was at the school.

Getting that prize changed my whole attitude. It made me feel good, though even after I was top of the class I still lacked confidence throughout my time at school. I never had any faith in myself, never believed I was clever and I think this was reinforced by disinterest at home.

I was absolutely sure I wouldn't pass my 11-plus. I did, though I didn't get a place at any of the grammar schools my parents had chosen. I don't know why I ended up at Eltham Green comprehensive when friends who didn't do as well as me went to grammar schools.

I absolutely hated Eltham Green. I was late arriving there because I had been turned down by the grammar schools. It was vast and it took me ages to make friends.

I met my best teacher when I was going into the sixth form. Mr Buckley, who taught biology, suggested I join his accelerated class. I didn't think I was good at biology - or anything - but he said: "You must join this class, you're wonderful at biology, you'll do really well." Nobody had ever taken notice of me before; I'd just drifted along. From that moment I really worked. I read all the books and did my homework beautifully. Mr Buckley made lessons interesting and I worked hard for him.

I came top in biology, not only in the school, but of all the pupils who sat that board's exam. He was incredibly thrilled and I knew then that I wasn't stupid. But I don't think I even bothered to tell my parents.

Mr Buckley was about 45, short, and thin with a very angular face. He was a failed medic. I remember his telling us he had gone to medical school but had had to give up after the first year when one of his parents died. I always felt sad for him because he was a wonderful teacher and I knew that he really, really wanted to be a doctor. It was because of Mr Buckley I decided I wanted to be a doctor myself.

Because I was good at biology and you could split it into two subjects at A-level (zoology and botany) I did those, with chemistry as a third. It wasn't until the end of my first year, when we were filling in our UCCA forms, that I discovered I couldn't get into medicine without physics. I gave up then and decided instead to become a teacher. I had a place at teacher training college in Nottingham but changed my mind, went to France for a year and started a degree in biology at Exeter. Then I got engaged, went to Madagascar where I got married and stayed for two years.

Returning to England, I started university again, reading biochemistry at London. I separated from my husband and one day on a train I met a professor of biochemistry at Newcastle who suggested I went there as a PhD student which would pretty well guarantee me a place at medical school.

But when I applied to study medicine the dean refused me a place saying I was knocking on a door that would never be open to me. He advised me to get out and do something entirely different. So I worked in market research for three years, and while I was doing a business degree at the London Business School I met Malcolm Borthwick who financed me in setting up a fashion company for large ladies. It was very successful but eventually I became bored with it.

I was 35, re-married and pregnant with my first child when I admitted to my gynaecologist my ambition was still to become a doctor. He said: "Go for it" - and I did. I got myself a super physics tutor, Mark Innis, and a wonderful chemistry tutor, Yvonne Rees, put myself in for A-levels and eventually got a place at the Royal Free Hospital. On my first day there I met a young student whose uncle turned out to be the dean at Newcastle who'd suggested I give up. "Next time you see him," I said. "Please tell him I knocked at the door and it was opened."

After medical school and the birth of four children, Dee Dawson worked at North Middlesex Hospital in the first job share in the NHS. Now aged 52, she is founder and medical directorof Rhodes Farm Clinic in north London, the first British clinic solely to treat anorexic children. She is married with five children aged eight to 18.She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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