Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Mr Cartwright by Meera Syal

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Mr Cartwright by Meera Syal

Article excerpt

The actor, comedian and author stood out at school. But her maverick Spanish teacher showed her that being different was a blessing

Mr Cartwright was the maverick teacher at Queen Mary's High School in Walsall. He was northern and gruff; a gravelly voiced chain-smoker who played the guitar. He taught me Spanish, a language I still love and one that has been incredibly useful.

Our school was a fairly traditional girls' grammar. Latin O-level was compulsory and we had to wear regulation navy blue knickers and a tam-o'-shanter. Yet in the middle of all this was Mr Cartwright: a sparkling personality who injected such anarchy and fun into his lessons that pretty much anyone who took Spanish came out with an A.

He made you want to learn. He sat on the desk when he talked to us and encouraged conversation. Lessons would meander off into tributaries. We talked about Franco and the politics of Spain. He had funny little rhymes and ditties that would help us to remember irregular verbs. He taught us Spanish swear words and we sang songs that would improve our pronunciation. We would come out of lessons laughing.

I was one of three Indian girls - and one black girl - in a school of 500. Mr Cartwright was the only teacher who asked me if I felt different, if I felt left out. When I told him I did, he said: "That's a pretty good place to be. I've always been different and it's never stopped me." He made it sound as though being different was creative and fun, not a curse.

At the time I was frustrated because I longed to write and act, and I didn't think that would be possible because I didn't see women like me doing that.

Mr Cartwright encouraged me to join his lunchtime guitar group. He would be smoking a fag and, when he showed us a tune, he'd stick it between the strings of his guitar at the top of the neck. I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. …

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