A Lovely Surprise in The Guardian

Originally posted in The Guardian.

Lola Okolosie: ‘You were expected to expel the waffle and have your own response’

“Most of us will remember one teacher in particular. We carry vivid images of their gait and can recall the way in which they held a room. At their very best, they can be the most captivating of professionals. For me, it was Mrs Jones, my A-level English literature teacher, who had a huge impact on my school life.

I was all set for studying sociology but Mrs Jones’ lessons made me reconsider. There was her glamour and sense of style. With the red lipstick and chunky jewellery, she stood out, and made learning English in the tiny attic room we were allocated cool.

It wasn’t Dead Poet’s Society. We weren’t her little lambs and that was what made her lessons so much fun. You were expected to expel the waffle and come to her with your own individual responses. My Nigerian upbringing, of adults being right and children being seen and not heard, hadn’t really prepared me for accepting that my thoughts were valid, all by themselves.

Mrs Jones inspired me because she resisted treating us like children. At times it felt a little bruising, but then the knowledge that she expected the absolute best from you made you believe you were, in some way, capable of it. By the time I began my undergraduate degree it felt like an anti-climax, we seemed to be covering old ground, well worn at sixth form. She collapsed the sense of distance that shrouds literary giants, such as Shakespeare and Keats, and made them seem as much ours as anyone elses.”

Lola’s teacher Karen Jones, Former assistant head at Ilkley grammar school

“I still have all my notes on from the days when I taught Lola’s group. Nowadays, all my lessons are electronically presented and stored on a hard drive but, perhaps rather quaintly, I have kept everything from that era. For these people were a special bunch: the sort of class you remember because you could recognise their potential; the sort of students who make the job worthwhile – the reason you came into teaching.

We were timetabled to have our lessons in a tiny, dusty room with funny little seats that had swivel tables attached. It felt like a university seminar room. Our view looked out onto the school’s front lawn and we could see Ilkley moor beyond. Looking through my papers now, I can see that I played on the undergraduate vibe: we spent ages talking, arguing and discussing and Lola loved to wrestle with the texts before writing her essays in her inimitable handwriting. I always tried to encourage her to be confident in developing her own responses and I enjoyed seeing what she made of the ideas. It was a privilege to teach her.”

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