Tamzin Outhwaite

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Two secular teachers in a convent influenced this actress and showed her the importance of competition and teamwork

My mum and dad had me when they were still pretty much kids themselves. My mum was 19 and my dad not much older. Thanks to their youth, and the attitudes that went with it, they were considered the coolest parents on the block.

Home was always fun, especially when my two brothers came along soon after me. It was a house filled with laughter and energy. Plus, my parents were pretty laid back.

Looking back, I can see they probably decided to send me to an all-girls' convent to balance things out. Maybe they thought: "Every child needs a bit of discipline in their life." And a convent seemed the best place to find it.

If that sounds negative, it isn't meant to. I was at Ursuline Convent in Ilford, Essex, from age 10 to 14 and I loved it. Ursuline was an amazing place; all indoor hats and outdoor hats, proper blazers and standing up when one of the nuns came into the classroom. I thrived there.

People who've been to convents often have something snidey to say about the nuns. But there wasn't one I disliked and many I loved. There was Sister Angela, for example, who held handwriting classes. We'd sit at old-fashioned desks and use proper fountain pens. Even now I still take pride in my ability to form perfect letters when I write. I think: "Oh yes, Sister Angela would approve."

Strangely, though, the two teachers who had the biggest influence on me were the only secular members of the teaching staff. Both were PE teachers: Miss Hampshire and Miss Duffle.

They were probably both in their thirties at the time, but had different styles. Miss Hampshire was upright, regal and ladylike. She'd make you want to stand up straight in her presence. Miss Duffle was much more into the rough and tumble. But together there was something inspirational about them. Put simply, they instilled the will to win in whatever sport you were good at. And they gave themselves selflessly in helping you get there.

I loved all sport. I did gymnastics, trampolining, badminton and tennis and competed for the borough and the county. It meant coming to school early and staying late, but it never felt like a chore. You'd get there first thing and one or both of them would be there, waiting, giving their own time, heaping encouragement on you and offering suggestions for how to push yourself the extra mile. After school they'd ferry you to competitions. I never heard them complain.

On reflection, Ursuline seemed to exist in a bit of a time warp. Now, you always hear that children are afraid of being considered geeky or nerdy if they want to excel. But there was no sense of that there. All of us were encouraged to be high achievers. It was OK to want to beat the girl next to you on the tennis courts and you could still be friends afterwards. Competition was considered healthy.

I was on the netball team and Ursuline was terrific at it, almost unbeatable. When it came to team sports, Miss Hampshire and Miss Duffle did everything to encourage a morale-boosting sense of camaraderie. Thanks to them, I'm sure, even now as an actress, I still think of myself as a team player. Maybe that is why I was so happy being one of an ensemble cast on the London stage where I worked for years in musicals before getting my break on EastEnders. I still love to be part of a team.

I could never have made a career as a sportswoman. I was not good enough to be a top-ranking tennis player and you can't make a living out of any of my other sports. But the things I learnt from Miss Hampshire and Miss Duffle seem so relevant to my life as an actress.

I learnt, for example, that if you want to excel at anything it takes endless hard work, commitment and discipline. And that, in a strange way, discipline is the key to freedom.

Sadly, I don't know what happened to Miss Hampshire and Miss Duffle. I never saw them again.

Tamzin Outhwaite, 37, the former EastEnders actress, will be appearing in The Fixer, a new six-part drama on ITV. She was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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