Lady Thomas
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The teacher who most influenced me was not a young renegade, fostering Mädchen in Uniform-style crushes among her pupils or Hollywoodesque acts of sentimental poetry-fuelled rebellion. Unlike the teachers in The Secret History or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she was not fascinatingly unknowable; she had no discernible ego, no air of tragedy, minimal interest in her pupils. She merely had a grey bun and high expectations. She was, however, brilliant.

North Oxford, where I grew up, is full of the brainy wives of much-garlanded academics. Valerie Thomas was, is, one of these. We, her pupils, were utterly unimpressed by the fact that her husband, Keith Thomas, was an eminent social historian; when, to our headmistress’s glee, he became head of Corpus Christi College and Mrs Thomas therefore became Lady Thomas, it seemed an act of daring loyalty to ignore her new title. So Mrs Thomas she remained: youngish (I now realise), unglamorous, rigorous, unashamedly intellectual. Whenever we called her by her ‘real’ name, she merely smiled. For, although she concealed it well, she understood us.

Her influence took two forms. First, she was uncompromising; there was no place for carelessness (‘do you know what “chronic” means?’) or clichés in even the most casual conversation. I regularly wish I could consult her; I need a red telephone on my desk for syntactical emergencies.

Second, in a low-key and unshowy way, she had passion. She saw no reason why her eleven-year-olds shouldn’t understand Clare and Arnold, appreciate R S Thomas, read Keats’s letters and fall in love. She taught us the value and weight of every unexpected word and, under her tutelage, the first verse of Laurie Lee’s ‘April Rise’, and the last line of Edward Lucie-Smith’s ‘The Lesson’, shocked me into becoming a writer.

In the five years I spent with Valerie Thomas, I only once, intentionally, made her laugh; I made a joke about punctuation, of which I am, still, proud. Frustratingly, she didn’t have favourites; she never lent me a book from her private collection, or took me aside and confided that I was the pupil of whom she had the highest hopes. If she had, it might not have happened. Instead, I am still trying to please her. If I ever do, I know she won’t write me a gushing email. She will, merely, smile.


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