Dear Teacher, Thank you for changing my life
Five famous names with very different stories - and the letters they wish they'd sent to their most inspirational teachers...
Updated: 09:32 GMT, 26 November 2010
A love of the English language: Sister Mary gave Jonathan Aitken his earliest reading lessons
Jonathan Aitken, 68, is an author and campaigner for prison reform. He is a former Cabinet Minister, Member of Parliament, and ex-prisoner. He grew up in Ireland where he spent three years in a TB hospital in Dublin.
Dear Sister Mary,
Thank you for teaching me to love the English language. Thank you for giving me my earliest reading lessons with such loving inspiration during the three years I spent under your care in an Irish TB hospital, aged five to seven.
I have been thinking about you a lot recently after I was taken back to Cappagh hospital near Dublin by the BBC to make a Radio 4 programme, The house I Grew Up In. as soon as I entered my old TB ward, a cascade of vivid and happy recollections about your lessons tumbled from the attic of my memory.
Like most of the children you nursed, I was strapped down on a frame. Immobilisation combined with fresh air was the only cure for TB in the preantibiotic 1940s. So instead of using books, you taught me to read by projecting slides on a screen above my head using a magic lantern.
You were clumsy with this contraption. When its steel plates overheated (as they usually did) you would hop around and cry 'Drat it!' or even 'Damn!' a nun saying naughty words made me laugh. You laughed too.
Do you remember how you would put up a slide picturing the wind and then teach me all the other words for it like breeze, blow, gale, storm, tempest, typhoon or hurricane?
As you imitated these different types of wind by blowing out your cheeks and flapping your nun's habit you captured my imagination. As a writer some 60 years on, I still enjoy searching for synonyms.
Jonathan in the Irish TB hospital as as a child: Immobilisation combined with fresh air was the only cure for TB in the preantibiotic 1940s
Not all the children in that ward survived. I was lucky to make a full recovery. Perhaps that was because you fired up my will to live by communicating your own enthusiasm for learning with such joie de vivre.
You also communicated the importance of having a spiritual dimension in life. not by preaching, but by example.
I well remember how you used to kneel beside my hospital bed saying your prayers until I dropped off to sleep. now, I have come to believe that prayer is very important. So thank you for that lesson too.
With great love and gratitude from your old pupil and patient.
High-achiever: Lorraine Candy left school with no qualifications. She is now editor-in-chief of ELLE
Lorraine Candy, 42, left school at 16 with no qualifications and went on to be features editor of The Times and editor of Cosmopolitan. She is now editor-in-chief of ELLE.
If my memory serves me well you were the last teacher I saw at my Cornish comprehensive 26 years ago. To spare your blushes, I will not use your name.
One sunless afternoon, in an empty classroom I sat opposite you for one of the bleakest chats a teenage girl could have. You told me I was making a huge mistake proposing I leave school at 16.
'Do your A-levels,' you advised, 'then maybe look for a career in the caring professions.'
'But I'm going to be a journalist,' I told you with all the incredulous indignation my teenage self could muster.
'I want to work on a national newspaper or edit a magazine.' You listened, then urged me to consider a job in a nursing home.
I explained I'd been offered work experience on The Cornish Times newspaper and had decided not to return to my sixth form.
After implying I wasn't destined for academic glory (a little painful to hear, by the way) you informed me my chances of success in the media were limited. Rather bluntly, you said that as I didn't have any family contacts in that industry and lived on the edge of Bodmin Moor, I had little hope of being the next Bob Woodward.
Dashed hopes: Lorraine, pictured as a schoolgirl, was told she wasn't destined for academic glory
The conversation took an odd turn as you wittered on about me doing my A-Levels but having a contingency plan if I got German measles and failed them. all in all, it was a rather dispiriting conversation which I am glad I had the arrogance to ignore. and in fact, perhaps it was my indignation at your comments that propelled me forward with such determination and conviction.
So here I am in my third editorship of a monthly glossy. I'm about as qualified as Homer Simpson is to do any of the jobs I've done, but hard work has pushed me through.
I've held senior roles on broadsheet and tabloid newspapers. I've travelled the world, broken exclusives, interviewed interesting people and retained a passion for my job which that careers meeting could so easily have killed.
I should imagine careers teachers never give a second thought to the advice they dished out to past generations of 16-year-olds, but I can only hope you didn't dash too many other hopes.
As the Queen in Alice In Wonderland said: 'Some times I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.' If you are ever to give careers advice again, I would recommend that as a more productive and successful message for teenagers today.
Inspired: Mr Blake was the first teacher who seriously engaged Jon Snow's attention
Jon Snow, 63, is a journalist most famous for presenting Channel 4 News. He attended Pilgrims' School in Winchester.
Dear Mr Blake,
You were the first teacher who seriously engaged my attention. In part because collectively, we nine-year-old boys in your class speculated that you'd had a mysterious war.
Were you once a spy? You had an interesting pinsized-hole in your fine, strong forefinger that suggested a bayonet wound. You spoke of the navy, and we boys thought of Bond, James Bond. You brought English alive for me - literature and language - and I can admit it, I worshipped at your feet.
You seemed to enjoy my adventurous rebelliousness, and I thought then, and think now, that you discreetly encouraged it in that Victorian confine that was our school.
You brought adjectives into my life, and descriptive writing. You liberated me. You let my essays flower, you never ordained what I could, and could not say. You merely set out the systems by which words worked. You taught me with drive and encouragement, never with threat, and found something positive to say even in failure.
I was an academic flop; you were most evidently a scholar. But you were, I can see now, my midway point between my ecclesiastical, classics-educated father, and my exuberant non-academic self.
My parents marvelled that you ever got me off the very bottom of Class 4a.
Dear Rodney Blake, in later life, I could never imagine you running off with the piano teacher, but you did. I spoke to you once on the phone in your rickety runaway garret in New Zealand. a stoical, lonely, sickly old man, you sounded as far from Bond, as I. You died too long ago - but not before I was able to thank you. You were proud of me, and I of you, for the chance your generous care lavished upon me.
Life-changing advice: Mrs Watson told Lionel Shriver to stick with writing
Lionel Shriver, 53, is the author of the bestselling novel, we need to talk about Kevin. She grew up in America and attended Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dear Mrs Watson,
I don't know if you cultivated an intimidating aura, but we were all terrified of you. We sat at our desks pin-drop silent, and even the slackers had always done their homework.
Modern educators would love to know how you did it.
You don't remember me. I was one more tenth grader in your American history class. But I remember you. We all considered you ancient, though you were probably younger than I am now
We were in awe, too, that you were rumoured to have a 'common-law marriage'. These days, even the leader of Britain's opposition is 'shacking up', but in the Seventies in Atlanta, Georgia, that was racy stuff.
One afternoon in your classroom helped to shape my life. You'd handed back a set of tests, and then the bell rang. as we filed out, you announced that you wanted to talk to Lionel Shriver. My heart walloped. What had I done wrong?
Young talent: Lionel aged 16
When everyone else had left, you said: 'Your answers on that test. They were very well written. Have you ever considered becoming a writer?'
'Yes,' I said, my heartbeat still making me feel sick. 'As a matter of fact, I have.'
'Well, keep at it,' you said, and that was that.
I did keep at it, Mrs Watson. I am a writer. But your taking me aside like that has been precious to me ever since. You didn't dole out many compliments (though lately they're cast upon classrooms like sweets at a pantomime).
You're probably dead. But I'd have liked you to know that you were right about a certain gift I had, which teachers like you nourished.
Moreover, anything I know about American history is down to the fact that you made us shut up, keep still, and do the work. That advice has lasted me a lifetime.
New realms of possibilities: Mr Whittaker was the most inspiring teacher Lynne Franks ever had
Lynne Franks, 62, left school at 16 and went on to run one of Britain's best-known public relations consultancies. She attended Minchenden Grammar School in north London.
Dear Mr Whittaker,
You seemed very creepy to us 14-year-olds, especially the girls. The way you stroked the stump of your amputated arm, supposedly a left-over from the war, made us young innocents see you as some kind of devil.
Which is why I find it even more inexplicable that all these years later, I still remember you as the most inspiring teacher I ever had. You encouraged me at every opportunity to have the confidence to be myself, whether standing in front of the class delivering my opinions in debate or writing essays that took my imagination to new realms of possibilities.
English was always my favourite subject and as the main English teacher at my north London grammar school, you saw your role, I see now, as a man of sophistication who was there to encourage any of us who wished to fly, to take leave of our suburban surroundings and join the rest of the world.
Minchenden Grammar School was a typical post-war, eleven-plus, solid kind of establishment where it was presumed girls would become secretaries prior to marriage. and yet a certain degree of individualism was somehow encouraged at school, despite the strict laws about the correct ways to wear our bottlegreen uniforms and how to sing our school song.
A man of sophistication: English was always Lynne's favourite subject
I don't know if you remember how I would often be voted the class captain in charge of our charity dances, would walk around the school with my copy of the NME predicting the next big hits and get in constant trouble with our headmistress for wearing nail polish, hoisting up my school skirt and wearing my 'mod' leather coat instead of my blazer.
It was clear to you and to all my teachers that I wouldn't be going to university. My father was sick with his regular depressions and my mother needed me to help out in the family butcher shop at weekends and after school during my O-levels. and it wasn't as if I was very academic anyway.
I couldn't wait to get out of school and live my life. I wanted to earn my own money to spend on the latest fashions and eventually afford to share a flat with other young women of my age near some remote exotic Tube stop such as West Kensington.
Four O-levels, a brief spell at Pitmans Secretarial College and a couple of jobs as a shorthand typist later, I was on my way. I believe it was because of you, Mr W, that I had the confidence to phone Petticoat Magazine where I got the job as assistant to future newspaper editor Eve Pollard, followed by working with other great Petticoat graduates such as Janet Street-Porter under the editorship of women's magazine pioneer Audrey Slaughter.
Public speaking, writing, taking a leadership role and understanding that I could follow my dreams have all been part of my career as a writer, PR and businesswoman - and Mr Whittaker, I know for sure that it was you who gave me that first confidence to believe in myself.
Thank You, best wishes,
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▸ I am glad to be your student, a million thanks to you,
As you gave me the strength, to make my dreams come true!
▸ For the world you are one person, but for one person, you are the world!
And that person is me. Thank you teacher.
▸ Thanks for the challenges you have made me face,
For they gave me the courage to be leading every race.
▸ Teacher, you are the best. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I will always remember you.
▸ You inspired me to find my goal, and made me capable of realizing it.
▸ I am grateful for everything you gave me. You didn't just teach, you mentored.
▸ You made me literate. With your guidance, seemingly difficult things became easy. You taught me to keep trying and never to lose hope. You gave me wings and taught me to fly.
▸ In you, I've found a friend, philosopher, and guide. Whatever I did, you have stood by my side.
You've praised, you've punished, you've always been fair. Whenever I needed, you've always been there.
▸ You have been the most influential person in my life. You helped me realize who I am. Thank you for being my teacher.
▸ You blessed me with success. You gave me strength. You made me a better human being. I consider myself lucky to have you as a teacher.
▸ Whatever little I have achieved is because of you. Whoever I am today, is because of you. I would have been lost if not for you. You showed me the right path. I cannot thank you enough.
▸ I owe you a debt of gratitude for all that you have done for me.