My best teacher;Parting shots;Interview;Timberlake Wertenbaker

6th November 1998 at 00:00
At the age of 13, I was beginning to go wild. It was the mid-Sixties, I was living with my parents in France and attending the local lycee, which was very strict. At that time I had, for French literature, the worst teacher imaginable.

We had to analyse poems and I began one of my analyses by saying I thought this particular poem was faulty. He told me: "Mademoiselle Wertenbaker, in the lycee francaise, students are not expected to have opinions of their own." That comment still reverberates with me today, and it left me seething when I walked into my first literature class at the start of the following year, known as Seconde.

Our new teacher was Madame Brun. She had been teaching for about 25 years and had a natural authority. We had her for two hours a day, and in almost the first lesson she announced that she was very familiar with the syndrome that occurred in Seconde, which she called the "esprit de contradiction" (argumentativeness).

She said it usually hit between one third and half of the pupils, and that she was well prepared. After about three months, she had become exasperated with me and said I had the most extreme form of this syndrome she'd seen for a long time. I had an intense dislike of every writer we had to study, Corneille in particular. There was also a lot of insipid, 19th-century poetry. Basically, my rebellion took the form of replying to everything Mme Brun said with a sentence beginning, "No, butI" A good friend and I were the pack leaders for the other boys and girls who were rebelling. But, although I'd skipped a year and was one of the youngest in the class, no one was as contradictory as me.

Mme Brun's response was to ask me to give a lecture to the class, detailing my general and personal grievances against society, the world and the universe. She gave me, I think, three days to prepare. I tried hard to analyse what I believed a lot of us were feeling. I can't remember exactly what I said or how accurate it was, but I gave the speech and the class accepted it.

Having to write that speech was important because it made me go from the personal to the general - that's what you do when you write plays. I got out of my own rut of saying "no" to everything.

Instead of being wrapped up in personal concerns, I realised that an individual was part of a society, that you didn't just have your family to deal with, and that you were very much influenced by conventions - whether you rebelled against them or accepted them. Mme Brun took what I said on board and afterwards invited me out for coffee on several occasions. It was very, very unusual for pupils to see teachers outside school. She called me Timberlake outside class, whereas inside it was always "Mademoiselle". I guess she was in her late 40s. She had brown hair, pulled back from her face, wore glasses and dressed in a traditional, elegant, very French way.

What was wonderful about her teaching was that she didn't see her pupils as exam fodder but as individuals with a right to their own opinions. She never tried to impose views on us and was interested in our reactions to classical texts.

After a few meetings, I started showing her the short stories I'd been writing. There's no way I would have shown them to my parents; in my family, women and children were supposed to be decorative and quiet. She was always very interested in what I was trying to express. Once, she said:

"Sometimes with your writing I feel you're like a fly walking on the paper and you haven't quite figured out how to take off and see the whole picture from above." That was quite an astute comment about a writer being too close to something.

She probably agreed with me about the dullness of the literature - I mean Corneille is boring. I think she understood the restlessness that one could feel working within the lycee's closed curriculum, but she was duty-bound to make us study and understand these texts.

I'm sorry that I didn't keep more in touch with her after leaving. I suppose I felt that I remembered her but she wouldn't remember me. I ought to have told her: "You started me thinking."

I was lucky to have somebody who could challenge me at the right time. I can see myself giving that lecture and remembering the pleasure of suddenly assuming that I was talking for other people. My six-year-old daughter is encouraged to address the class at her school. The culture at the lycee was totally different. Mme Brun was the first person in my life who gave me the right to speak.

Timberlake Wertenbaker, playwright and screenwriter, won the Olivier Award for Best Play in 1988 for 'Our Country's Good'. The play - on A-level syllabuses for English, drama and theatre studies - is on tour from November 3 to December 9 (for information, tel: 0171 609 0207). Her translation of 'Filumena', by Eduardo de Filippo, is playing in rep at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, starring Dame Judi Dench. She was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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