My Best Teacher;Interview;Patience Agbabi

8th January 1999 at 00:00
I spent most of my teens commuting between London and north Wales. When my parents came to Britain from Nigeria in the Sixties, they were both studying. Being responsible people, they thought it would be difficult to be there for us, so we - my brother and I - stayed with foster parents who were friends of theirs. First we lived in Sussex, and our parents would see us every week. When I was 12 my foster parents moved to Colwyn Bay in north Wales, and we would go home to London for the holidays.

The contrast was really important for me. I loved living by the sea and spent a lot of time on my own there. I loved the tranquillity, the silence, the sense of possibility, but I would have been frustrated without the hubbub of the city. I would often bring a friend home and show them London.

I've always written. I had a period of intense creativity when I was six or seven and would write stories 26 sides long. My teachers encouraged me; they were amused I think. My family were really pleased. Both sets of parents encouraged me to read and write at home.

In Colwyn Bay I went to Eirias High School, a 12-18 comprehensive, where Keith Toy taught me O and A-level English. I'd barely studied poetry before. I knew about song lyrics, short stories and novels, but I'd never read any Shakespeare. We did The Merchant of Venice for O-level and four modern poets - Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, Thom Gunn and R S Thomas - and Macbeth and Henry IV Part 1 for A-level.

He was into us reading out loud. We were shy at first about reading Shakespeare in class, but it really inspired me. We'd read particular chunks and then discuss them. He would quietly recommend other books and you desperately wanted to read them. He told us that Hal rejects Falstaff, so I read Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V - I had to know what happened. We ended up wanting to read other tragedies as well, besides Macbeth. It was about a real love of literature rather than reading to pass exams. I did S-level as well, and he would lend me and another girl, my friend Naida, books and we'd swap them.

I especially enjoyed Chaucer - the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale. Mr Toy made us read them out loud as well, which was quite a challenge. I went out and bought a tape. The best thing he did was to get us to write a modern character sketch in iambic pentameters and rhyming couplets. I got an A. It was the only A I got in English. I got As in exams, but the rest of the time it was B-pluses. He was a hard marker, but I respected him for that, and when I got an A I knew it was really something. I went on to write The General Prologue to the Colwyn Bay Tales. It was the early Eighties, so I chose youth cults of the time - punks and new romantics - and some recognisable people. It was my first epic poem - more than 1,000 lines long. I was quite shy. I'd like him to know I did it, but I didn't show it to him.

I suspect he saw it, though. When I went to Oxford for my interview, I took it with me, and one of the tutors was very keen on Chaucer. I'm sure the copy got sent back to my school. I was the first person from my school to go to Oxford; someone had gone to Cambridge about six years before. No, it didn't really bother me being just about the only black person in school. It was useful at Oxford, though - I got invited to lots more dinner parties.

What I respected most about Mr Toy was that you could tell he loved literature. You don't need to wave your arms about to prove that. He had a dry sense of humour as well, which helped, especially at O-level when there are always some in the class not wanting to be there. He opened up a bit at A-level. Looking back, the jokes then bordered on sexism, but in general I thought his sense of humour worked.

I've not kept in touch. He's had a huge influence on me, but he was quiet and I was shy around my teachers - I didn't acknowledge it at the time. I think I muttered goodbye and thank you and slipped out. He wasn't a flamboyant character or especially good-looking. Such people often don't get the credit they deserve.

My love of literature at school precipitated my going back into schools to do workshops. I was lucky enough to have a good English teacher. Some people don't, and even if they do, they are not properly introduced to poetry. Some teachers will accept that children are not going to enjoy it. I was lucky; I didn't know you weren't supposed to like poetry.

Patience Agbabi is a performance poet. Her collection of poetry and prose, 'Transformatrix', will be published by Payback Press later this year.She was talking to Heather Neill

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