My best teacher;Interview;Diane Abbott MP;Parting shots

29th May 1998 at 01:00
I was the only black pupil at Harrow County Grammar School for Girls and I was completely counter-stereotype. I was very academic and terrible at sport. I was a plump child, always with my head in a book.

Right from being at infant school I had been good at writing essays. My work was always read out in class and pinned up for the others to read.

English was my favourite subject, and Miss Landry, who taught me, was a very charismatic teacher. She was Welsh and quite glamorous, and was just passionate about literature and language. She conveyed that to her pupils. She wasn't a soft touch -she was quite spiky - but there was a star quality about her. I liked having a teacher who was as enthusiastic as me about a subject.

Miss Landry's approach contrasted sharply with that of my first English teacher at the school, Miss Peck, who was an austere woman. For our first lesson she set us an essay to write and the next lesson read out our marks. She started reading out the list, beginning with those who had got A+, then A, B+ and so on, working her way down to the Cs and Ds. Being used to getting good marks I was shocked not to hear my name as she went through the list. Finally, she had read out everyone's marks except mine. I put up my hand and asked what had happened to my essay and she said she would see me at the end of the lesson.

When the class was over I went up to her desk and she pushed my essay towards me saying "Where did you copy this from?" She couldn't believe that a black girl had written such a good essay. I was so shocked I didn't defend myself. I just went away feeling humiliated.

For the remainder of the year I deliberately didn't write as well as I could because I didn't want that humiliation again. Once Miss Peck stopped teaching me, I went back to my old high standard.

My parents, in common with most immigrants, were passionate about education. I can remember going home from school one night having come second in something and my father said: "It's no good being second. You always have to do better than white people."

I didn't particularly like school, but I didn't dislike it. With the surname Abbott I was always the first on the register, which meant I couldn't be late. Being the only black pupil, I stood out, but I wasn't overly confident, nor did I creep around.

It was quite a formal school and we had a uniform: a navy gym slip, cream blouse and navy and pink tie. In the winter we had a navy felt hat and in the summer, a navy straw. That straw hat was always a problem - because I had so much curly hair it kept coming off. I lost it in my last term in the sixth form.

I got nine O-levels but I wasn't made a prefect or anything like that. I don't think the teachers saw me as school prefect material. And when I wanted to take the Oxbridge entrance exams they tried to dissuade me. I was determined enough to insist. We'd been on a school outing to Cambridge and I thought it was a wonderful place. I wanted to study history and it was my history teacher, Miss Buckley, who tried to dissuade me. She said she didn't think I was up to it. I replied: "But I do." However, I got four As at A-level and, with one other girl, stayed on an extra term, tutored by Miss Buckley, to take the Cambridge entrance exam. We both passed.

My school ran a joint drama society with the local county boys' school, and I remember appearing in a production of Macbeth in which Michael Portillo played Macduff and I was Lady Macduff. Clive Anderson, the talk show host, was in the same school drama group. So was Francis Matthews, who went on to become a professional actor.

I was very conscious of inequality when I was in my teens and twenties, and my ambition then was to become a politician. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror when I was 40 and say, "Well, at least you tried". Now I have turned 40 and I am able to do that. I am very fortunate to have achieved my ambition and to have a job I really enjoy. Another ambition was to have children - I have a son, James, who is six. My one remaining ambition is to write a book. I am interested in history and I might write about the history of the Caribbean or slavery rather than a novel. But it may have to wait until I leave the House of Commons.

Diane Abbott was Britain's first black woman MP. Elected in 1987, aged 33, she is the Labour representative for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Divorced, she has one son. She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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