Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company

'I was too unusual for school in Iran'
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The Independent Online

Camila Batmanghelidjh, 43, is the "children's advocate" who founded two charities and was voted by Saga readers as last year's "wisest of the wise". Kids Company (www.kidsco. org.uk) offers support to 11,000 children and is providing 800 Christmas lunches - cash and presents are needed. Her book Shattered Lives was published in May.

I was born in Iran - very prematurely. I weighed just 2.2lb and there was no incubator, so I had a lot of specific learning and perception difficulties. There was clearly a neurological disturbance. I have no memory of my first school in Tehran, just of the round colourful table where I sat.

I have no memory of people there; I couldn't see faces and I didn't have glasses until I was nine. The only thing I can remember is a drunken teacher being very happy that I had got zero instead of minus 50 in a spelling test, which is what I usually got because I was marked down for making so many mistakes.

The funny thing is that I was a very intellectual child, interested in philosophy - Bertrand Russell - and psychology. I used to paint (I would send the family cook out for the oil paints) and two of my paintings won an international award in a competition for adults. When the culture minister found out I was only nine, he told my parents I was far too unusual for Iranian schools and that they should get me out of the country.

I ended up at nine having a good but unconventional education in Switzerland, in the mountains near Villard. I lived with 15 boys: you never had a bath in peace!

You researched whatever you wanted in the morning for three hours - I was interested in what made people have faiths, and also in the social structure of bees - and then went skiing or motorbike riding. We were a really quirky bunch. Titus was interested in birds; Leyton just had nervous breakdowns.

I was there until I was 11, then I ended up at Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset. My languages had been Farsi and French; my mother "contributed heavily" to my Common Entrance paper or I'd never have got in. The first two years were a shock: playing hockey, wearing a uniform and doing the polka!

The housemistress was always trying to convert me to Christianity and following me around with a guitar and Bible. I ended up in the bottom form with five other "mistakes". One of them drew constantly with a Biro, the same face over and over again. By the third year there were two teachers, June Taylor and Anne Dixon, who were worthy adversaries: very strict - and fun. I was writing - well, dictating - plays. One play they banned; it was about the afterlife.

I failed English language O-level eight times and maths eight times, but got A and B grades in art, history, English literature and French. I had an assessment from a neurologist who got me a dispensation in exams so that my A-levels could be dictated. I got As and a B and a C in drama, art, classical civilisation and French.

Warwick offered me an unconditional place in theatre studies and I got a first-class degree. I was neurologically disorientated, but I had a great time. I acted - I was the pantomime Dame, with three performances a day in the Arts Centre, and I brought the house down. I made it up as I went along.

Then, at Regent's College in London, I did a four-year psychotherapy and philosophy Masters. I knew as a nine-year-old that I would work with children, and I did a two-year infant and child observation course at the Tavistock Clinic in London, and then one-year course in art psychotherapy at Goldsmiths - all using a tape recorder. I wrote my book in 11 days, dictating 10,000 of the 40,000 words accurately in one go - but I can't remember a telephone number long enough to dial it.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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