My Best Teacher;Interview;James Ferman

17th December 1999 at 00:00
My parents were a terrific help during my education. My mother, who taught English in junior high school before having children, encouraged me to read. In my teens, when I brought science work home, my father always seemed to know the answers to my questions. He trained as a doctor before becoming involved in making medical training films.

We moved to Great Neck, Long Island, because they knew it had very good schools, and I had a wonderful time at Great Neck High. It had about 1,600 pupils across six year groups, in classes of about 30.

When school ended at 3pm, I'd stay back for extra-curricular clubs: the school newspaper, the dramatic club and the school radio station, which broadcast for 20 minutes at lunchtimes.

I started at Great Neck in 1941, and a lot of the young male teachers went off to the war in 1942. Some left to work in munitions factories, because the pay was so much better than teaching.

My best subjects were maths and science, and I eventually went to Cornell University to study pre-med - yet the three inspirational teachers who really affected me at school were in the arts.

When I was 14, my love affair with English literature began, thanks to Marian O'Connor. In her classes we read David Copperfield and Silas Marner, and had an introduction to Shakespeare. She made me love being analytical with the text. She taught us that great literature was about the choices individuals make. The books I'd been reading up until that point were all about escapism, things like Ivanhoe, but now I began reading more deeply.

Miss O'Connor was an attractive Irishwoman, aged about 50, and people couldn't understand why she wasn't married. We learned that her fiance had died during the First World War. I think that's why she poured all her love and attention into classroom relationships.

The following year, for history, I had Mr Blakemore, who missed military service because he was asthmatic. He was very, very thin, a pleasant-looking, nice man, though not particularly warm. We covered English, European and some American topics, and he made me realise how the decisions taken by individual leaders at critical points in history could change the direction of their own lives, and the future of their countries - or even the world.

He was the first teacher to say to me "Don't just read the textbook, it's not gospel", and he would give us a bibliography for each topic and encourage us to read the views of at least two contrasting sources. He loved his subject and would give lots of time to students who were enthusiastic.

Thanks to him, I became analytical about the crucial influences in the outside world. Historic events were very close to us at that time, since the first United Nations base was being built just 20 minutes' drive from the school, at Lake Success. Mine was a very idealistic generation: America had won a just war and we were going to build a better world. I think that spirit infected the teachers as well as the kids at Great Neck.

Mr Blakemore set a lot of course work - eight major essays a year - and gave us the chance to write a long paper on each historical period. I wrote papers which I still remember with pleasure; they were much more ambitious than anything my children were asked to do at their schools in England.

We had no streaming, and everybody in these mixed ability classes was expected to do large amounts of homework as well as the annual New York state exams, which were pretty tough.

In my last year, my ability to analyse history was strengthened by Miss DeFreitas, who was in her early sixties and very strict - not someone you could get close to, as I did with Miss O'Connor. For this old-fashioned teacher we had to do a major term paper on American history and I chose foreign policy, from Washington and Jefferson right up to the end of the war and the start of the UN. It was the piece of work I was most proud of, about 40 pages, which I typed, as I'd done with all my essays from age 14 onwards. I'd go home after each afternoon's club activity, start doing homework, have dinner, perhaps listen to the radio a little (there was no television) and then work some more, sometimes until past midnight. I never minded the work as I found it so stimulating.

I've never met those three teachers again. Cornell University absorbed me totally and I made so many friends there that I was never tempted to go back to a high school reunion.

Years later, when I was working in England as a TV director, one of the writers on a documentary series said my strengths were analysis and synthesis. If so, there is no doubt that those skills began with those inspirational teachers at Great Neck High.

James Ferman, 69, was director of the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 until 1998. Prior to that, he was a television drama and documentary director for ITV and the BBC, winning a BAFTA award for 'Before the Party' in 1970. He was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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