SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

'I looked like a little boy in Chanel at an American prep school'

I grew up in Montreal, and when it was time to choose a school my parents looked for one where the children were laughing.
I started at St George's Elementary School at the age of three and I was 16 when I finished at St George's High. My schooldays bring back happy memories. I remember them being a lot of fun.
My school was remarkably progressive and big on individuality. We were the first private school I know of that abandoned school uniforms. Most students wore blue jeans and polo shirts, but my mother is French so she had me dressed in French designer wear. I looked like a little boy in Chanel at an American prep school. Eventually I said to my mother, "I need a pair of blue jeans", and I think she understood.
St George's was very creative and focused on the art of learning as opposed to knowledge. We were given free time, which is an incredible allowance for children. Pocket money worked in a similar way and we learnt to manage our money.
We could use the free periods to study, work on a project, play sport or just hang out, so it taught us to manage our time and was good for us later when we went to university and had an abundance of free time. If you are not used to it, it can be overwhelming.
Socio-politically, the environment began changing in 1976 and it started to become much more French. I was about 13 when our school began a French immersion programme, which meant that for one year all our lessons were in French. Having grown up speaking French to my mother, this was not too difficult. I was among other English-speaking children, and my French was easily the best in the class.
Science and maths always came easily to me, but writing was a real challenge, because I was slightly dyslexic.
After high school I won a full scholarship to study medicine, which didn't come as a total surprise: my family are all physicians, even the people who marry into our family are physicians. It's like a pre-op every time we get together.
But I chose a liberal arts course at Vassar College, which is a few hours outside New York City in the Hudson Valley. It was a good university with a lot of facilities and large enough to be anonymous without being so big that the teachers didn't know your name. I graduated with a BA in Theatre.
My favourite class was the speech class, run by Sandra Green. She taught the art of elocution. Sandra was a gracious, Audrey Hepburn-like woman and I was taken in by her charm, poise and sophistication. It was a holistic approach to speech, with breathing exercises, but my biggest lesson was about self-respect. If you respect yourself, you learn to speak well.
I was very active at university. I became president of the student body and did a lot of charity work. As president, a lot of what I did involved holding assemblies. The issues might have been small - such as when junior female varsity students went out to a sports event they got US$30 (HK$234) a day, but the guys got US$50 - but they were real life issues.
I think listening was my best quality: even today I have "Chief Listener" printed on my business card.
Richard Feldman is the owner of Al's Diner, the Annexx, Red Rock and the Bagel Factory. He was talking to Kate Whitehead.