Dame Esther Rantzen will never forget the head teacher who made her cry - nor the one who taught her how to use her voice…
My earliest memory of school is falling in love with someone called Alan. Actually, no – I can remember being at nursery school aged around two and a half, painting pictures that were entirely black, and sitting on the steps, sobbing; but after that, I went to a junior school in Berkhamsted, and fell in love with Alan, who was adorable.
When I was about six, however, things changed. The war ended, we returned to London, and I went to a school which had a very good academic record, but was founded, owned and run by a sadistic woman, who really didn’t like children very much at all. We all knew that when she summoned you to her study, the sooner you started to cry, the sooner you would be let out. I was very stubborn, and I didn’t cry for a long while, but in the end I did, of course. She really was dreadful, and so I was very glad of our lovely French teacher, called Mam’zelle, who taught me how to draw a fairy village with mushroom houses.
The last straw
I remember an RE lesson, in which the teacher informed us that the world began with Adam and Eve, whereupon I put my hand up, and said that actually, my daddy had told me that people began as monkeys. The silence that followed was frosty; I had no idea why, but when I told my parents about it that evening, they fell about laughing. They were considerably less amused when I came home another day and explained what I’d learnt about the terrible Israeli terrorists killing British soldiers in the Middle East; we’re Jewish, and that kind of talk was something my father would not tolerate, so he decided I must be moved.
At the age of seven, then, my parents applied for me to join the North London Collegiate School, where I met Dame Kitty Anderson – or Doctor Kitty Anderson, as she was then. She was a little, round Yorkshirewoman with prominent teeth and hair in a bun, and she couldn’t have been more different from the only other head I’d known; she was wonderful. She loved children, and she always had a soft spot for me. We all had to draw pictures; I drew a fairy village with mushroom houses and a doctor arriving on the back of a snail – and even though I failed my arithmetic test and had to take it again, I was offered a place.
I have such positive and happy memories of my time at NLCS, where I stayed until I was 19 and took the Oxbridge entrance exams. It was a fantastic community of 900 girls plus staff, and it wasn’t as strict, I think, as many other establishments at that time. We were encouraged to be creative, and to express our opinions. Dame Kitty taught us history, and current affairs; she made sure we understood the importance of using our vote, and the terrible power of propaganda.
I did come across bullying, though, when I was eight or nine, and one poor child was sent to Coventry – I never knew why, but I thought it incredibly unfair. In the end, our form mistress talked to all of us, reducing us to tears by making us see exactly what we were doing. That’s the thing about bullying – it won’t stop without intervention, and adults who work with children really do have to grasp this. I’m currently in the middle of an anti-bullying campaign, and I have also become patron of a social enterprise that runs schools especially designed to support vulnerable young people who struggle to access mainstream education for various reasons. Tolerance and kindness are so crucial, always.
Spread the word
I know how much pressure young people can find themselves under these days, and I hope teachers are aware of Childline, and know that it’s not just for little children, and it’s not only for cases of abuse. We get many calls about issues like eating disorders, self harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, family relationships, sexuality… our counsellors are accustomed to hearing young people talk about all these things, and they can be reached online, by email, by phone – all the ways to get in touch are on the website. If I have one message for teachers, it would be please, tell your students that they don’t have to deal with what they are facing alone. Help is out there.
About the author
Dame Esther Rantzen is a journalist, presenter, and founder of Childline and The Silver Line. She is also Patron of the social enterprise TCES Group (tces.org.uk), which offers outstanding education for children who struggle to access mainstream schooling.
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