Our PE teacher was a choreographer and we all adored her

6th May 2005 at 01:00
She invited some of us round for dinner and I remember eating an avocado with her husband in this big house

I grew up on a council estate in north London. My dad worked for the Post Office and my mother did sewing at home. She'd been a teacher in Jamaica and had a lot of respect for schools.

I was the youngest of four children and shared a bedroom with my brother till I was 16. My mother had to retrain to be a teacher when she came to England. She would sit on the edge of her bed, trying to study. It wasn't the easiest place to be a scholar.

At St John's primary school there were two other black girls in my class and we were made to feel different; the white children said we were dirty.

There was no one there to help you out; these were the days "before racism was bad", as they say in The Office.

Unlike my brother and sisters, I didn't have to take the 11-plus, but I was quite near the top of the class so I got into Highbury Hill school for girls. I was put in the B stream and loved it. We had this English teacher, called Mrs O'Keefe, who was the first person to see potential in me. I could feel it - with a sense of relief - and I really wanted to do well for her. I was devastated when she left to have a baby.

The school was strict; you had to stand up when a teacher came in. It was the early Seventies and there was tension between the younger teachers and the old retainers led by the headmistress.

Miss Westlake was strict as hell, but we became friends when I did sociology CSE with her. It was a fantastic subject because it was about life and I knew about life. She was tall and she had this intense stare which she had perfected. I can see her sitting on a desk, talking with such an intent look on her face, but you felt her equal.

Before my O-levels (I got seven eventually) a PE teacher invited some of us round for dinner. She was a choreographer and we adored her. I remember eating an avocado with her husband in this big house. There was something so nice about it: a home and a marriage that I didn't know existed.

My best friend Caroline was staying on to the sixth form so that's what I did, to study A-level art and English. Mr Cooke, the art teacher, was a wonderful early feminist. He just wanted us girls to have fun and do well.

He was another person who saw potential and expected things.

He enrolled my friend Janet and me into classes at an art college, Sir John Cass. But we used to get the Tube going the other way and explore London.

The National Portrait Gallery became an important place, so I was thrilled recently when they hung a photograph of me (taken by Mary Dunkin).

The headmistress made me do typing; she didn't see me as the university type. I hated it and would slump over the typewriter. Then there was a terrible fuss because I wrote complaining to the Inner London Education Authority and she was livid.

People laugh at me now when I say I never read a book with pleasure till I was 23. But Bleak House, The Mill on the Floss: they just made my heart sink and my mind go blank. The A-level required a level of understanding that just went over my head. I bought pass notes, and that's how I got an E grade for English.

Much later, in the 1980s, I had a friend in Australia who said my letters were really good, that I wrote well. I started writing stories for teenagers and then I met someone who was in a writing group. They told me about the City Lit and a course, Beginning to Write, with Alison Fell. You came with something, you read it out and people talked about it. I attended for six years and my first book had been published. I saw Alison after the Orange Prize when I was doing a reading at Middlesex University; she came up and said I deserved it. Alison taught me everything I know about writing.

Author Andrea Levy was talking to Sarah Bayliss


1956 Born London to Jamaican parents

1961 Attends St John's CE primary, Islington

1967 Highbury Hill school for girls

1974 Foundation course, Canterbury Art College

1975 Textiles degree, Middlesex Polytechnic

1979-82 Jobs in costume at Royal Opera House and BBC

1989-95 Writing classes at London's City Lit

1994 First novel, Every Light in the House Burning, followed by Never Far From Nowhere (1996), Fruit of the Lemon (1999) and Small Island (2004)

2004 Small Island wins the Orange prize for fiction and Whitbread book of the year

2005 Commonwealth writer's prize for best book; shortlisted for FosterGrant romantic novel of the year

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