I dedicated my first book, ‘What Colour is the Sea?” to ‘all the wonderful teachers who encourage their students to discover things for themselves’, but there is one teacher in particular who deserves a personal dedication. He’d be mortified if I used his name. Nevertheless, he deserves a special mention. I’ll call him Mr B.
When I was growing up, I always knew that I wanted to be an illustrator. I loved drawing. It was the one thing I did that set me apart from my clever siblings. They could all draw, but they didn’t. They were too busy being good at maths, science, music, whatever. So I drew regularly and was regularly told that my work was good. I didn’t believe it for a minute. I loved doing it, but no matter who complimented me, I didn’t believe they really meant it. They were family, or friends of family. They were just being kind, trying to make me feel better about the fact that I didn’t excel at school.
When I was in Year 11, I moved to a new school. My Biology teacher was an Englishman, ex-Merchant Navy. He was strict but fair, with a cutting sense of humour. He was the sort of man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. I liked him, but feared him at the same time. One day, to my dismay, he discovered some drawings of mine on the back of my file. I doodled a lot while listening. I still do it. He looked at them while I quaked on my seat, then said, “They’re good. You should work on getting your stuff published.”
My first reaction was to laugh. Me? Get published? Apparently he didn’t like that reaction. “Why are you laughing?” he said, “I don’t give compliments I don’t mean.” At that moment, I realised the truth of what he was saying. He was right, he rarely gave compliments, yet he'd given me one. For the first time ever, I felt a thrill of pride. I could do it! Someone actually thought my work had value.
From that point on, Mr B did his very best to encourage me in my art. Whenever he needed artwork for something, he’d ask me to do it, then pay me because, he insisted, it was worth money. When a student was called ‘uncouth’ by another teacher and sent to Mr B to be reprimanded, he asked me to make him a sign for his door – “The Couth-maker”. With added confidence, I carried on to take the prize for the top student in Art at the school and looked forward to going on to art school.
Sadly, my mother had other ideas. She was convinced that art school would turn me into one of those strange people who did things like throw a pot of paint at a wall, give it a fanciful name and call it art. So, not being a rebel, I changed my preference to an Arts degree. Mr B didn’t say anything when I told him, but at the end of my gap year, when I’d finished working in the Science Lab – a job he’d found me – he wished me luck and added “But remember, if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not for you.” As it turned out, I did enjoy Archaeology and I’m not sorry I did it, but it took me a long time to get back to my dream of being an illustrator.
So if you’re a teacher, please look for that child in your class who is lacking in confidence. Help them to find their passion and encourage them. You may never know how much it meant, but it may be the one thing that spurs them to keep following their childhood dreams – even if it’s forty years on!
(The picture above is one drawn by me when I was four years old.)