If you saw Dame Helen Mirren’s speech at the BAFTA awards, you’ll know what this is about.
— There will be a short interval to recover from the overwhelming awesome… and we’re back in the room —
The most important teacher I had was a lady called Sonja. I’ve long been forbidden from calling her “Miss Charles”, because she says it makes her feel old – but, like everyone who has been asked by one of their schoolteachers to call them by their first name, I still flinch internally every time I say it. It feels disrespectful, somehow, not to call your teacher by their “teacher name” – as though you’re now claiming to be their equal, their peer. Which you can’t ever be, because how could you? If you were lucky enough to have a teacher like that, you know that to some degree, they shaped you. They helped make you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty or thirty or seventy – that teacher is always going to be your teacher.
Sonja was responsible for introducing me to Milton and Marlowe, and she steered and supported my flailing attempts to tackle Hamlet and Macbeth. She even put up with my turning in essays claiming Romeo & Juliet is actually a comedy (when I made it to university and sat through a lecture suggesting the same thing, I had to sit on my hand to stop myself from punching the air…) and patiently marked no fewer than three essays subtly* expressing my dislike of DH Lawrence’s books.
When I left school, we started to exchange letters every Christmas – and still do. In the intervening years, I’ve continued to learn from her – just as as I’ve learned about her. Now, I know her interests in medieval literature align very closely with my own (although she never let that slip when I was in school) and I know how kindhearted and generous she is. Sixteen years after I last saw her, I know more about her now than I did when I saw her every day… and I suppose that’s how it should be, because then she was a Teacher-with-a-capital-T.
She’s retired now, but I remember her as being unflinching in her support of her students. She was inspiring, she was strong and she was ridiculously well-read: every once in a while, even now, I’ll come across a book and think “Oh, that’s what she meant!” Like all old-school teachers, too, she had a stare that could drop unruly third-years across the yard, and a raised eyebrow which could (and frequently did) reduce strapping great big rugby guys to whimpering wrecks.
To this day, she remains incredibly supportive of me – and I only wish there was more I could do to repay her. If you care to look, you’ll find her in the acknowledgements of BLOOD AND FEATHERS, but it hardly seems like a fair trade-off. Without her, I don’t think I’d be where I am.
Sonja – Miss Charles – was my teacher, and I’m immeasurably grateful to her.
Who was yours?