My Favourite Teacher - Mem Fox
“Joh Smith, literature-lover, brilliant feminist and wild woman taught me English for five of my six years at high school.
“It was the early sixties in the middle of Africa.
“Appallingly, the school was all-white and all girls.
“Miss Smith was single although it was impossible to think of her in spinsteresque terms.
“The short, permed black curls which squatted on top of her head were out of proportion to her lofty height and large nose.
”She must have been in her forties but her age was indefinable and irrelevant since she communicated literary information in the form of gossip which we all found irresistible.
“Her passion bulldozed any resistance we might have had for so-called ‘difficult’ works. She breathed literature, making it a living force in our young lives and hers, no matter when it had been written.
“She’d collapse in rapt tears from time to time as she read us poems such as Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi or Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon.
“‘Girls’, she’d sniff from behind her damp handkerchief, ‘it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? I just can’t go on! One of you will have to read instead.’
“In later life I wondered if it were a ploy to get us to read complex texts suddenly and without fear.
“She read to us daily, which made even the most difficult literature easy to understand and appreciate.
“Shakespeare and the great novelists and poets came alive on her tongue.
“The modulations of her voice created meaning for us where no meaning would have been possible had we been reading silently on our own.
“In the year most of us turned fourteen she introduced Thomas Hardy to us.
“‘Imagine, girls. A man urinates against a wall and his whole life changes. A love story, a terrible coincidence, a series of mistakes and there you have it: a life in tatters. This book is called The Mayor of Casterbridge. Now who’d like to start reading?’
“At university many years later, as a mature-age student, I was affronted when a clever young tutor served up a pompous, negative assessment of Shelley’s poetry.
“I remembered how Miss Smith, back in 1963, had stopped in mid-reading, during her introduction of the ‘Ode to the West Wind’.
“‘Girls, listen. Close your eyes and listen.
“See! Words are the poet’s paint. They’re the musician’s notes:
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
They voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
“We heard. I’ve often rolled the sound of those ‘oozy words’ around the walls of my literary bank, longing to appropriate them for my own use.
“I doubt I’d be writing this (who would have cared enough to have asked me?) were it not for Miss Smith.
“She taught us rigorously - as if we’d learnt nothing at primary school - all the nuances of grammar, spelling and punctuation that we would need for the rest of our lives, as well as imbuing us with a mad passion for literature and a mania for words.
“My later success as a writer didn’t occur merely because I could spell, punctuate and write grammatically, although that has been essential.
“Miss Smith knew that learning is a by-product of getting things done so she made sure we wrote an enormous amount each week to practice the mechanics of writing we had learnt, but also to put into personal use the fascinating words and ideas we had picked up from the literature we had read - and the literature that that she had read to us.
“We were writing and learning as we were learning and writing: the mechanics of writing were inseparable from the act of writing.
“She often read our pieces to the class, proudly, almost as if she’d written them herself.
“Her reading of great literature (not ours!) provided us with hundreds of thousands of words.
“I’ve always thought that one of the keys to my becoming a writer was the sheer number of vigorous and unexpected words I have heard rather than read.
“It’s the hearing of them that’s kept them alive.
“My mind teems with them.
“I’d be unable to write without this library, this dictionary, this thesaurus in my head.
“Nor would I be able to write a half-decent sentence without the sounds of millions of sonorous sentences echoing through my brain, acting as my steady guide to the perfect placement of perfect words.
“Joh Smith was passionate, inspiring and strict.
“We loved her subject and we worshipped her.
“I, in particular, hung upon her every word and tried, with varying success, to impress her with everything I wrote.
“She treated us all fairly but I did like to feel I was a favourite.
“She told me I could become a writer.
“Happily, and secretly, I believed her.
“A great anxiety, left over from her teaching, which assails me every time I write is whether my paragraphs connect.
“I have checked this piece.
“They do connect.
“Miss Smith wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise.”
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