Elaine Brace was such an interesting character because she hated kids and didn’t mind telling us that. She was my A-level English teacher. I remember her with great fondness.
Although she hated children, she absolutely loved her subject. You could taste her love of stories and plays, and she instilled that same passion into all of us. She certainly instilled it into me, anyway.
Miss Brace was the sort of teacher who had a twinkle in her eye and loved to say outrageous things just to see how they would go down. I remember once, we were reading Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and she looked around the classroom and said: “This play is so misogynistic. I’m sure Shakespeare had a dose of the clap when he wrote it.”
Our jaws dropped. I was shocked. I remember thinking: “did she really just say that?” But she had this wry smile on her face, so I knew that she had. To be honest, that was the first time I had ever thought of Shakespeare as being a real, normal human being, as opposed to this icon who fell to Earth, fully-fledged as a great playwright. Miss Brace made me think a bit deeper about writers and their backgrounds and how their everyday lives would affect their writing and so forth. She was amazing.
From the age of about 7 or 8, I also wanted to be a teacher. When I was doing my A levels and my careers teacher asked me what I wanted to do, I said that I wanted to do an English and drama degree and then become an English teacher at the end of it. But she just looked at me and said: “Black people don’t become teachers. I’m not going to give you a reference to go to university. That’s not what black people do.”
I was astounded. The careers teacher was the one who wrote out the references on the UCCA forms – as they were then – and she was refusing to give me one. Instead, she suggested that I apply to do business studies at a polytechnic. So, that was what I did, until I got my A-level results and was able to apply to university off my own bat later.
Looking back now, that careers teacher actually did me a favour, because she taught me resilience, perseverance and tenacity. She taught me a lesson: if I want something, it might not happen when I want it to, but if I keep going and if I work hard enough, then hopefully I will get it.
That came in very handy once I decided that I wanted to be writer and I was getting all my rejection letters; I didn’t let those stop me. I just kept slogging away and sending out stories until I finally had my first book accepted for publication.
I never did become a teacher in the end. But now I go into schools to do creative writing workshops and talk about books and reading and the love of stories. So, I feel that I’ve got the best of both worlds, really, in that I still go into schools and talk to children, but then I come out again – and I don’t have to mark homework.
Ultimately, I’ve ended up doing something connected to that passion for literature that Miss Brace instilled in me. Sadly she passed away quite a few years ago, but if she was here today I would say a huge thank you. So: thank you, Miss Brace. Couldn’t stand children, but you were still a wonderful teacher.
Malorie Blackman is a judge for the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s 500 Words short-story writing competition for children aged 5-13. It is open for entries until 22 February. Full details can be found at bbc.co.uk/500words. She was speaking to Helen Amass