Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Mary Beard, Classics professor and author

'I was a swot – and a bad girl'
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The Independent Online

Mary Beard, 53, is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, a Fellow of Newnham College, and Classics editor of the 'TLS'. Her books include 'The Roman Triumph' and, most recently, 'Pompeii'. She is currently spending a year at the University of California, Berkeley, lecturing on Roman laughter

We lived in the schoolhouse of the village school in Church Preen, in deepest Shropshire, and my mum was the schoolmistress. She taught the juniors, and one other teacher taught the infants. I went there from the age of three, no doubt as a form of childcare. It was a 1960s radical education: say-and-do, collecting flowers, pond-dipping and loads of poetry. There was a field where appallingly dangerous games were played.

At seven, I went to the local direct-grant school, Shrewsbury High, about 12 miles away. It was much more structured and academic: more talk-and-chalk, committed teachers and a silly uniform with boaters. It wasn't a toff school, but a privileged school that showed girls there was more to life than marrying a rich farmer. I was 11 when I started Latin, not like boys, who start early at prep school. At 14, you had to choose whether to start Greek and drop German, but my mum made a fuss and I took Latin, Greek, French and German at O-level, which meant I didn't do much science. Greek was more glamorous and romantic; Latin I was better at.

At 16, I got into local-education archaeology classes – you got to go to summer digs. It allowed me to be both intellectual and a bad girl with a wicked social life every evening!

My A-levels were Latin, Greek and ancient history. I got As in everything: I'm a terrible swot! The school was keen on getting people into university, but the number of women getting into Oxbridge was tiny. I was into Black Power, and my practice Oxbridge essay was a rant. The headmistress said I'd never get in with that, but she was probably wrong: I was the ideal combination: a swot who was also a bad girl. I won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, a women's college.

When I went up, I had no idea there was any educational sexism, but in fact girls had to prove themselves more. I read Classics, and the teaching was marvellous. I liked being in the library – sex, drugs and rock'n'roll were compatible with working hard. That's how it's been ever since!

I got a First, then did a PhD. At the end of the second year, I got a lectureship at King's College London. I went to the interview wearing blue stockings: self-parody is a virtue!

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