'A French teacher taught us French drinking songs'

Annelise Connell Environmental campaigner

The first day I went to school in Hong Kong in the 1960s was one of the happiest of my life.

I had four older brothers and sisters so I felt left out with them going off to learn and me stuck at home.

We moved to Hong Kong from Tokyo when I was three. Dad was in import-export and he and mum were from the United States.

At primary school it's the maths teaching I remember. We were given cards with numbers, each with a different colour.

It was a novel teaching method and I found the colour coding meant I could add up more easily.

I also remember failing a spelling test and trying to convince the teacher I'd used American spelling.

She said: 'Then you misspelt it the American way as well.'

Later, we moved to the Peak and next door was a local family where I came to understand a man kept two wives. I didn't think it was odd at all but then you don't at that age.

I went to the Peak School and remember being elected captain of the netball team because I'd missed the class and no one else wanted the position. I was terrible and we always lost.

However I was very fond of music. I particularly liked the drums and horns because of the noise they made and the fact the other classes seemed so quiet.

School lunch was so bad we'd take only the fresh bread, put salt on it and eat that.

One year there was a terrible drought and we only had water for four hours every four days. We'd fill every container possible to keep us going.

I loved it because it meant I couldn't take a bath though I've since seen the error of my ways.

I gradually became more of a teacher's pet and my average grades improved marginally.

I was also chosen to appear on an RTHK children's television show playing an unpleasant character called Curious Connie.

A friend from ballet class told me I played the part perfectly. In other words, she meant I played the perfect snob though I didn't know I had it in me.

I went on to Island School and though I wasn't there long it made a great impression.

It was there I had one of my best maths teachers. He made it fun by shouting out multiplication tables, treating it like a game show and making us think as quickly as possible.

We also had a French teacher who taught us French drinking songs. He'd tell us about going down into the sewers of Paris and it made French come alive.

Island School was where I learned to recite prose and capture people's attention by varying my intonation. That's been a priceless gift in my working life.

We also had these uniforms with ringpulls that the boys quickly realised they could pull down to the horror of the girls. One boy did it to me and I retaliated by kicking him hard. I learned that sometimes you just have to take action!

At the age of 13 we left for Thailand for nine months and I barely went to school before moving to California. In the US I went to a state school and would do homework 20 minutes before class. I didn't find the move easy. California was the epicentre of US drug culture and I felt society was quite divisive.

However, I met my second memorable maths teacher, Mr Saito, who'd goad me and another girl if we dropped out of first and second place in his subject.

I'd known since I was 10 I wanted to be a computer mathematician and I enrolled on the first software course available at the University of California at Berkeley.

When I became homesick for Hong Kong I returned here and when a bus belched at me it was then that I turned my attention to advocating clean air. I'd never been in the political arena up until then.

Clear the Air's job is to make a noise. When pollution impacts daily life then the grass roots can become a powerful voice.

However, instead of saying idling engines are irritating we've established patrols who smile sweetly and ask people to switch off their vehicles. We've found most drivers support what we do.

Berkeley has had a part to play in that. There you learn that one day your time will come and you'll be in a position to make a real change in society.