Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Benjamin Zephaniah, performance poet

'I was expelled for my poetry'
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The Independent Online

Benjamin Zephaniah, 48, is a writer and musician. He has curated Benjamin's Britain, the current exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. We are Britain! and J is for Jamaica are his latest children's books and his album Naked is out now.

The school I went to for the longest time was my approved school! For domestic reasons, me and my mother moved frequently.

I was at my first primary school for three years. I remember my twin sister crying on the first day at St Matthias' in Farm Street, Birmingham. It was an all-white school and we were the first black kids. I was embarrassed about my sister drawing attention to us. It was Church of England and very old-fashioned. There were teachers with big glasses, hair in a bun and canes in their hands.

I was bullied a bit. They used to stand around shouting at me and put the gollywogs that came with marmalade on my desk. There were white kids who were bullied too. I recall a boy saying, "I'll be your friend; before you came, they bullied me. I'm Irish and Catholic." When a Pakistani family came, the other kids left me alone. But we made friends with the Pakistani family: sufferers sticking together.

I was dyslexic, although, at the time, the word wasn't used. At six or seven, I knew my name but couldn't remember the letters that put it together. I found writing or reading difficult.

I went from that school to Deykin Avenue Juniors in Witton, Birmingham. There were people from all over the world! And no one mentioned my colour. There were no canes; teachers talked to you and would sing along with you. There was poetry on the wall.School started at 9am but I used to ask, "Can I go early?"

I was there two years. Then I went to a series of schools: one school in Stourbridge for a few months maybe, then another in Dudley. The first secondary school I went to was Kennington Boys in South London for one day. This was the only boys' school I went to. I hated it. When a girl walked past they went, "Woo - girls, girls!" Between the ages of 10 and 12, there were long periods out of school. Then back to Birmingham.

Ward End Hall was very modern and had all the facilities: basketball, an athletics track and long-jump. I got expelled for having pornography. Boys were passing Playboy or something under the table and, as it came to me, the teacher said, "What have you got in your hand?"

I went to Broadway Comprehensive. I was getting rebellious. The teacher said, "Slavery was abolished," and I said, "No, it wasn't!" I was expelled at 14 because I got a spray can and decorated a wall at school with my poem about how boring school was, and signed it with my initials!

I started doing petty crime and was sent to Boreatton Park in Shropshire for about 18 months. I did a course in car mechanics and built an engine for a Corsair 2000E. Once I got out of "Dracula's House" and I ran into the woods. I was gone for hours and then I looked up and saw the hall and realised I'd gone round in a big circle.