Classroom Memories: Helen Lederer

Helen Lederer, the comedian, writer and guest star in Absolutely Fabulous, attended Blackheath High School in south-east London. She is now writing her third novel and developing a sitcom for BBC2
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The Independent Online

While independent schools may sound as if they're bohemian, that wasn't something I experienced. It was quite a blue-stocking environment. Because it was a school for girls, it had to be self-consciously pioneering and careerist. In the sixth form, I was lucky enough to have a history teacher with whom I could discuss Marx - I was getting interested in him at that time - but that was considered rather daring, not the norm. There was the odd teacher who could excite and inspire you, but their approach had to be conventional because the aim was to get you into Oxford or Cambridge.

The school was essentially a hothouse: the emphasis was on exam results, which was fine if you were that type of child and could sail through passing exams. Those pupils were rewarded for that, and there was a lot of positive reinforcement for them, but little left for those who couldn't hack it. I was put in the writing class because my writing was bad - still is - and I remember feeling stigmatised. I didn't feel that I blossomed there; I was more creative than that. How I managed was by overdeveloping my personality. It was sink or swim, and I've always been quite a hysterical person so, although it sounds like a cliché, I found that humour and fun meant more to me. But no one ever suggested that I consider drama school: in those days, the options were secretarial work, teaching or Oxbridge. Now, my daughter is given so many options, and all manner of things are possible.

It's all about pegs and holes: if you fit, fine, but all schools should embrace all-comers. I always felt that I was getting by on a wing and a prayer. It's difficult to know if my experiences were down to the school being independent - maybe I would have been more helpless in a larger environment, and they had the expertise there to get me through. But really, I think my head teacher at the time was of another era.

Blackheath has a new, young head teacher now. I was rashly invited back for a prize-giving, which was so weird that I felt sick standing up there. I never saw myself as an achiever. I got into trouble and broke the rules, but if you survive the trauma of growing up, get some exams behind you, are a nice person, and have the chance to mix with different people, that's all you can really hope for."

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