I grew up in my family’s newsagent’s shop on a council estate in Middleton, Leeds, and went to the primary school around the corner. There were seven of us Gills, six sisters and a brother, and I was sixth in the pecking order. We all walked to school together and our friends would come back to the shop after school to get their sweets. Although we never played out, I felt like I was part of something. I don’t think I’ve ever felt I’ve belonged quite as much as I did at primary school.
My favourite teacher was Mrs Reynolds. She was an elegant woman with beautiful skin and orange nails. I remember how kind she was to a young girl from Zimbabwe who was adopted into a family on our estate, hugging her and making her feel welcome. I wear orange nail varnish sometimes in honour of Mrs Reynolds, but it never looks as good as it did on her!
We didn’t do activities outside school as we were always busy in the shop, but I made up for it by getting involved in everything on offer at school. I played the trumpet and sang in the choir, although I have a vague memory of being asked to leave for some reason… But right from the start, it was the school plays I loved most of all. When I was seven, the lead part was taken off a boy because he’d been naughty and I got to play Tutankhamun. Being asked to replace a boy and allowed to be at the forefront was an amazing feeling! I don’t think it’s ever left me.
Could do better
When I was 11 I went to Cockburn High School. Again, it was all about the performing arts for me – the drama department was really strong and lots of us have gone on to work in TV. Then when I was 14 my family moved and I went to Brigshaw High School, which had just been rebuilt after a fire and felt a bit like it was finding its feet. I was Asian in a predominantly white village and everyone already knew each other. I wasn’t bullied and didn’t hate it, but I didn’t excel as I could have. I was put in the bottom set for everything to ‘see how I got on’ and in some subjects, like French, it was awful. No one wanted to be there and the teacher spent too much time dealing with bad behaviour. I did as well as I could at GCSE, but know I could have done better.
It was Miss Woffinden, my drama teacher, who came to the rescue. She saw my passion for acting, took a shine to me, gave me the leads in school plays and was truly interested in my future. Although no one in my family had ever acted, it just became a given that I was going to. Miss Woffinden helped me prepare for an audition to get into a college on the other side of Leeds to do my BTEC, which in turn opened the door to university.
My appreciation for the opportunities I’ve had is one of the reasons I support Comic Relief. Most of us take it for granted that we’ll go to school, but that’s still not the case for so many children around the world. As someone who has benefited massively from education, I want as many people as possible to have the same chances as me. Like lots of people my age, I’ve got incredibly happy memories of the whole school coming together for Red Nose Day when I was a teenager. It’s a brilliant, fun way we can all make a real difference.
Looking back on my school days makes me realise just how different my life would have been without the influence of some amazing teachers. I’ve got a lot of life knowledge and am very streetwise, but without their help I probably would have ended up working in my dad’s shop. They were my champions and opened up the world to me. Life can turn on one moment; meeting one teacher. It makes you reflect!
About the author
Mandip Gill is an actor and is currently playing Doctor Who’s companion, Yasmin Khan. She is a supporter of Comic Relief and is involved in this year’s Red Nose Day on Friday 15th March.