My Best Teacher;Interview;Sue Cook

30th April 1999 at 01:00
Robert Fox was the vice-headmaster of Vyner's Grammar School in Ickenham, near High Wycombe, and head of the German department. I remember him because he was the strictest teacher in the school, and at first terrified the life out of me. You could hear a pin drop in Mr Fox's lessons. He wouldn't brook any misbehaviour. We played up all the other teachers mercilessly but we never played him up. He was so difficult to please, you felt extra chuffed if he praised you.

He was quite an eccentric. He always wore a gown in class and he cycled to school from High Wycombe, which was about 10 miles away, on a battered black bicycle, dressed in a battered brown raincoat and a battered trilby hat. He had piercing brown eyes with which he would fix you as he went round the class testing your knowledge of German verb endings. He had wispy brown hair and a moustache and smoked a pipe.

He taught me from the second year right through to A-level. I was good at languages but not so good at sciences. The minute I got to the sixth form, Mr Fox dropped all the dominating teacher-pupil relationship business and treated us as equals. There were just five of us in the A-level class and we went to his study for lessons, where he sat puffing on his pipe. His teaching was inspirational and fascinating. He talked a lot about symbolism and parallels, and deeper meanings in German literature. He digressed a lot, but it was all useful stuff. I saw, then, that he had a twinkle in his eye I hadn't noticed when I was lower down the school.

He was the only teacher who saw any potential in me. I was a bit of a rebel. I didn't work very hard and was always getting into trouble for petty things, like being late or missing the swimming coach. I was always having my name called out in assembly to go to see the headmaster or the senior mistress for something or other. My friend Ruth and I were regularly in trouble - for minor misdemeanours, like being seen eating ice-cream in school uniform. Things that I don't think you get into trouble for at all these days. I had my ice-cream confiscated more than once. I remember seeing the headmaster, Trevor Jaggar, with his gown billowing behind him, with two ice-cream cornets, one shoved on top of the other, walking down the school drive with great dignity having confiscated them. The ice-cream van used to stop right outside the school, and on a hot day it was very tempting.

Mr Fox was a perceptive teacher who looked for the best in people. I didn't do particularly well in my O-levels. I got 10 of them - but none at startling grades. At one parents' evening, mine were fairly depressed by the lacklustre reports about me from teachers, until they came to talk to Robert Fox. It was a turning point for me when he told them that I had "some very special qualities" and if I could manage to focus and stop being lazy the sky was the limit. I remember vividly when my parents told me what he had said - I felt, then, that I could do something with my life.

Vyner's was a new school and was different in that we had a tutorial system. The other teacher I adored was Norman Lane, my tutor right through the school. He was the music and choir master, and the choir was one of the few real pleasures school gave me. I loved singing, and he was an inspiring choir master. Through him a few of us got to sing in the Albert Hall, which was very exciting. He was younger than Mr Fox, who seemed awfully old.

I left to go to Leicester University, where I read psychology, English, sociology and archeology. I planned to read psychology and modern languages but couldn't because of timetable clashes. It never entered my head that I'd become a broadcaster. I planned to be a writer. Rather arrogantly, I thought I could write columns for newspapers, like Katharine Whitehorn.

When I joined Nationwide on BBC television and was on Radio 4 and quite well known, I was asked back to the school to present prizes. It was a strange feeling, having never won a prize in my life. I met Mr Fox, who had retired by then, and his wife, and he was as charming and gorgeous as ever.

Sue Cook is presenting a weekly series on Radio 4, 'Making History', which is being broadcast every Friday at 3pm until May 21. She recently presented a series on Hampton Court for Channel 4, and is also writing a novel. She lives with her partner, children's television producer Billy Macqueen, in north London, and has two children.She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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