They asked me, 'Are you made of chocolate?'
The bright blue walls of Coralita Martin's small living room can only just be seen beneath the hundreds of photographs. Alongside pictures of her children and 27 grandchildren there are formal class photos with beaming youngsters, pictures of Mrs Martin with pupils on the beach in France and even snaps of the elderly ex-teacher abseiling in Wales on a school trip.
This two-up, two-down house is in the middle of a sleepy housing estate in rural Thetford, Norfolk. She is one of the area's few black residents and has been since she moved here 11 years ago. Not that this bothers her in the slightest.
The 77-year-old is accustomed to being the first black face some people have ever seen, not only in rural East Anglia, but also in many of the schools in which she has taught over the past 50 years. London may be a multi-ethnic city now, but it was a very different picture when Mrs Martin first moved to the city.
"I'll never forget when I worked in Queensway (west London), one child came up to me and said: `Are you made of chocolate? Can I have a lick?'," says Mrs Martin, bursting into cascades of laughter and falling back into her armchair. "Another time, I fell over in the playground and my knee was bleeding. One child gasped and said: `Miss has red blood!' I just laughed and said: `What did you expect?'"
Infectious laughter is her trademark - so much so that friends and family ring the house hoping to hear the answerphone message, which starts with the usual pleasantries and then explodes into a bubbling laugh.
This laugh and charisma have been Mrs Martin's coping mechanism through a life of hardship and extraordinary upheaval, including facing racism and prejudice from pupils and parents.
She has now chronicled this life in her autobiography, Courage to Dream: the impossible becomes reality, which charts her journey from being abandoned by her mother at 10 days old to a successful teaching career, at a time when black teachers in England were few and far between.
Mrs Martin had first taught in her home country of Antigua, realising a dream that had kept her going through a poverty-stricken childhood. "To me, learning was such fun. I had so much joy being a schoolgirl and I just always wanted to teach," she says. "When I was at school, the teachers chose the bright children to help with the younger ones and I was chosen. I felt so proud, standing in front of 60 children, some of them with shoes, some of them barefoot like myself. There was something inside me."
But at 25 and with three young children in tow, she left Antigua for London, six months after her husband had made the trip. Although the family moved in search of a better life, leaving their homeland proved an enormous wrench.
"Coming here was so terrifying and painful for me," she says, visibly shuddering at the memory. "When I landed at Southampton my feet felt like ice blocks. You don't wear warm dresses in Antigua - only summer clothes. So I was in my flimsy summer dress, shaking."
Her previous teaching experience in Antigua helped her land a job at her daughter's school. Although delighted at the opportunity, teaching at St Peter's Roman Catholic primary school in Wapping, east London, was completely different from what she had experienced in the Caribbean.
"The children were so naughty, and the prejudice and racism was terrible," she says. "We used to walk the children to the church for their dinner. They loved to hold my hand on the way - I didn't ask them to. But one mother saw us and said: `Take your black hands off of my daughter!' It was hard."
It was not just parents who had to be won round. She recalls one headteacher who frankly admitted her own reservations after Mrs Martin had proved her worth. "She said to me: `When you came here, we were a bit apprehensive. But you've got the children eating out of your hands'," Mrs Martin says.
She continued to teach in inner city London schools until 1970, when the law changed and teachers could only work in the UK after getting a qualification. So, at the age of 36, Mrs Martin found herself doing a three-year course for mature students at Avery Hill Teacher Training College in Greenwich, south-east London.
On top of her teaching placements and academic study, by this time Mrs Martin was bringing up seven children. She had also decided to leave her husband, and took her children to live in a squat.
Against the odds, she gained her teaching qualification and moved to Thetford to make a fresh start. "Thetford compared to London was like cheese to chalk," she says. In London, the children were so badly behaved that she could never leave the classroom. "But in Thetford, I could teach, set the work, explain and explain again, and then I could go out into the garden, look at the poppies, come back in and they would still be there working," says Mrs Martin. "We got to know each other so well. It was some of the happiest years of my teaching."
Mrs Martin always had an affinity with the underdog and throughout her life has befriended many vulnerable pupils. "I always said: if you do not understand, please put your hand up," she says. "I remembered as a girl, when I didn't understand I was too scared to put my hand up in case I got the belt."
Mrs Martin later returned to London, this time working in Haringey, but in her late 60s she moved back to Thetford for a quiet retirement. At least, that was the plan. "But then I heard the voices of children in the playground nearby and I thought: no, I want to go back to teach!" she says, clasping her hands to her heart.
Even at this late stage in her life, her race was still an issue. "I went to the school gates and I saw a lovely teacher in the playground with her class. She said: `Who's going to show this lady where the headmistress is?'" says Mrs Martin, starting to laugh. "Up until then, they had never seen a black person. All the children were very quiet and looked afraid. In the end one little boy, trembling, took me to the office."
Never one to be deterred, she ended up doing regular supply work at the school and quickly won over the pupils. Despite being in her 70s, she also started a popular youth club for teenagers, encouraged by her grandchildren, before finally retiring from teaching at the age of 72.
Her passion for teaching and children has sustained her throughout her life. But one of the things she is most proud of is that two of her children have become teachers themselves. Her daughter is a head of year at a secondary school in London, while one of her sons, Mick, teaches design and technology and PE at a secondary school in Thetford.
"My aim in life is to be half as good a teacher as my mum," says Mick, who was taught by his mother as a child in London and also observed her lessons as an adult. "I know if I do that, I will be twice as good as any other teacher."
At 77, Mrs Martin has witnessed various teaching fads and changing wisdom over pedagogy. But she believes there is no mystery over what makes a good teacher. "I think you have to be firm but kind," she says. "You must have fun in the classroom - children shouldn't be scared - but when a good teacher comes along, they immediately have respect."
She says she feels "blessed" to have ended up in England, thousands of miles away from the Caribbean. "I loved poetry when I was young and here we have Shelley, Keats, Shakespeare, Hardy," she says. "I always say, look how God is good. He has made me retire in the Poets' Corner."
And with that, she sits back and crosses her legs, letting her rainbow- striped socks peep out from underneath her trousers and betraying just a hint of the vivacious primary school teacher she is at heart. But after all these years of teaching, rearing children and most recently, writing a book, one of the first black teachers in London is finally ready to retire for good.
`Courage to Dream: the impossible becomes reality' is published by Last Word Publications
Prejudice and isolation for the new arrivals
With a warm second-hand coat and boots, I was sent out to buy provisions. That bus journey opened my eyes to unexpected racial prejudice. Two Jamaican women looked at me as I walked past them down the aisle of the moving bus. There was an immediate outcry: "Look how she black. She black, black, black," said one to the other. "She from Africa, that why she so black," came the reply. The conversation continued. "Perhaps she can understand what we are saying." "No those Africans cannot speak English. They do not understand."
More feelings of isolation were to follow a few days later. It was my first Sunday in England and I heard a church band outside the front door. I followed the procession with the children, eager to go to church, but it was a long walk to the other side of the community. We sat at the back, the only black faces in the hundred-strong congregation. No one spoke to us. We left just as we arrived, friendless and lonely. I cried all the way home.
From `Courage to Dream: the impossible becomes reality'.