When Brenda Pinder left the school she evoked Dead Poets Society...

24th February 2006 at 00:00
When Brenda Pinder left the school she evoked Dead Poets Society. She said: 'When you are standing up on your desks I'll be waving back at you'

I had some amazing teachers, right from primary school in Haringey through King's at Peterborough, and great university professors at SOAS and Harvard. Teachers from throughout that time have become personal friends and if I was asked what would I do if I weren't a politician, it would be to teach.

The teacher I am going to pick is Brenda Pinder. I had always wanted to be taught by her and finally, after I had got enough GCSEs to go into the sixth form at King's - which was by no means a foregone conclusion - she became my English teacher.

I remember my first class with her; we were doing The Pardoner's Tale by Chaucer. Everybody in the class seemed to know what this guy was talking about, but I just got more and more depressed, the tears started to well up in my eyes and I thought "I can't do this". But the course became clearer and her exploration of Hamlet and of Death of a Salesman and A Handful of Dust were just extraordinary. She was also a socialist, in that her politics were part of the way she explored English literature. You can read Hamlet and not explore the politics of it, or you can link the politics of "something rotten in the state of Denmark" to what was going on in the late 1980s in Britain, which I found deeply troubling.

She treated us as adults and was always warm and affectionate. When I have had great relationships with teachers, often there has been quite a lot going on outside the classroom. With Brenda, the funny thing was that even though she was our form teacher, there wasn't much to our relationship outside the classroom. But you just couldn't wait for those two hours to come when she taught you. Whenever I think of Brenda, it's through her teaching that I remember her.

She left the school the year I left. She made a speech when she said two important things. The first was: "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Everyone thought she was speaking to them, and that clarion call speaks to me now. The other thing she evoked was Dead Poets Society - this was the year the film came out and we all loved it - and she said: "When you are standing up on your desks I'll be waving back at you."

We didn't know it then, and I'm not sure if she did, but soon afterwards she became ill with cancer.

Years later, when I decided I wanted to become an MP, I sent my application form up to Brenda. Because she had been such a wonderful socialist inspiration, I wanted her to play a part in it. Of course it came back with red marks all over it. So I corrected it and sent it in and was accepted.

She died before I became an MP, which I was very sad about.

As a child, I always loved music - my sister and I used to get 50p for singing at children's parties and mine was a fairly strong Christian family so we would sing in the choir at church. I had a wonderful music teacher at Downhills primary school called Mrs Shepherd. Somehow, Mrs Shepherd, the head of Downhills, the priest and my mum decided to start writing off to choir schools, and King's in Peterborough was one of only two state choir schools in the country.

I remember when the letter came, we all sat round the table. The moment when I opened the letter saying I'd got in, and what it meant for my family, I can't convey it. It was like Billy Elliot. My reaction was absolute joy.

I sang the solo in Peterborough cathedral one Christmas Eve. Standing up at the dispatch box in the Commons, with the huge weight of history on your shoulders, takes you right back to those seminal moments and those individuals, teachers and choirmasters who gave you that confidence. Brenda Pinder's response to me was so warm, and she was so positive I was going to succeed, that I have to pick her out.

David Lammy MP was talking to Harvey McGavin

Portrait by Neil Turner


1972 Born London

1977 Downhills primary school, Haringey

1983 Wins a choral scholarship to the King's school, Peterborough

1990 Reads law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University

1994 Admitted to the bar

1997 Masters degree in law from Harvard 2000 Serves briefly on the Greater London Assembly before being elected MP for Tottenham in a by-election following the death of Bernie Grant

2001 Re-elected at general election

2002 Made under-secretary of state for health then minister for constitutional affairs

May 2005 Becomes minister for culture

2006 Taking paternity leave for birth of first child

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