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My Biggest Influence Writing Competition Spring 2013

Julia — A Teacher to Remember
Anna Foster

The new teacher strode into the room, papers tucked under her arm. "Hello, I'm Julia," she announced, giving us a broad smile, "your new form teacher." Already, she had our attention. Young, dressed in a long, floaty skirt and a swirl of colourful silk scarves, she looked nothing like our other teachers.

"You can call me Julia," she continued, "and I hope we'll become friends." By now, the whole class was rapt. The teachers at our grammar school were determinedly dowdy, often terrifying and very single. Most were 'Miss'.

Julia turned out to be married with three children, which was fairly normal by comparison, but even so she was an exotic creature in our midst. Although she accepted that we couldn't smoke in school, she wasn't against it and if we ever met her outside school, which we came to do, she never tried to stop us.

Why were we blessed with Julia? Rewind to the previous summer, the last day of the school year, 1973, when aged 13, our class disgraced itself in assembly by booing loudly at the departure of an unpopular teacher and we spent the rest of the day doing detention in the deputy headteacher's office (herself, a very dodgy singleton).

For the staff, it was our final act of rebellion which forced them to respond. It followed on from kicking down a classroom wall (very satisfying), laying joke dog turds next to various teachers' desks, continually playing pranks on a hapless French teacher, resulting in her taking a period of absence from school, locking the teachers in the staffroom (brilliant wheeze, they had to call down to the school secretary for the spare key), and... I could go on.

In desperation, the school sent out an SOS over the summer. We're not sure how it happened, but the result was Julia, a Gold Award-winning actress from RADA who had retrained in psychology, specialising in troubled youth.

She offered only carrots, no sticks. In addition to being our form teacher, she taught us English and outside school, ran an active, local youth theatre.

She brought English Literature alive for us. We had to write essays, of course, but in class we read out texts and discussed them avidly. Even the most shy had to perform. She gave us numerous creative writing exercises, far beyond the demands of the national curriculum, and encouraged us to write not just prose, but also poetry and play scripts.

Her influence helped me to decide on my future. I grew to love both English Literature and Language, took English Literature at A' level, and then at university. Ever since, I have worked in journalism and publishing.

Julia also invited us to join her youth theatre to help us further 'lose our inhibitions'. At these workshops, Julia, and her co-leader, Paul, a teacher from another school, led us in improvisations and games. Nowadays, these would form part of a Performing Arts GCSE, but back in small-town '70s England, they felt revolutionary.

We were invited back to Julia's for tea, and chatted and smoked away to our hearts' content. Each summer we put on a play and spent three weeks rehearsing in a church hall. We got to know boys, of course, too, and in the free-and-easy atmosphere of the youth theatre, friendships formed. We went to pubs (aged 16) and rebelled against our parents.

Our bad behaviour did not stop overnight. I still remember my friend Sarah and I, after some misdemeanour, having to bring our desks to the front of the class directly under Julia’s gaze on the raised dais. Even so, we edged them backwards, to the giggles of our mates behind. She saw, looked at us, and uttered just one word: "Incredible!" and then ignored us for the rest of the lesson. I seem to remember feeling slightly foolish and rather ashamed that we had let her down.

After any poor behaviour or adolescent upset, Julia took us off 'to the English store cupboard’. Although it sounds creepy, it wasn't. Instead of being ticked off, we were encouraged to sob our hearts out, to tell her all that was wrong with our lives - parents, other teachers, rules, the world and everything - and she counselled us. Looking back, it was therapy for teenagers. At the time, we just revelled in the attention. We returned, restored, to the classroom, envied by our classmates for the one-on-one session with Julia.

Did she overstep the mark? Inevitably, we grew up. We began to find her interest in our private lives cloying and intrusive. We stopped behaving badly and matured. The talks in the English store cupboard seemed unnecessary to us, though Julia still encouraged us to confide in her. Would she never let go of us?

She remained our English teacher through to the end of the Sixth Form. We all did well and continued to enjoy her classes, many of us going on to study English or Drama. But, now aged 18, we really resented her. We saw how we had fed her ego, and almost despised ourselves for how easily she had turned us against our parents and other teachers. We watched her begin her 'treatment' on a new group of boisterous 14-year-olds.

She had the last word though. Years later, when we were in our twenties, we returned for a reunion of the youth theatre. We approached her tentatively. She recognised us, but instead of greeting us warmly, exclaimed, "Oh, that dreadful class!" We were stunned into silence. But it was true, we were a dreadful class - and credit to her for not folding, like the poor French mistress.

And she was an inspiring English teacher.

© Anna Foster, Kent, UK March 2013