Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty

'I wanted to be prime minister'
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The Independent Online

Shami Chakrabarti, 37, is the barrister and Home Office lawyer who joined Liberty in 2001, the day before September 11. She became director of the organisation (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties) in 2003, and has since appeared frequently on television, including BBC1's Question Time.

I remember, early on at Glebe Primary School in Harrow, being quite anxious. A sense of pressure - to do well and be a good girl - came to me early on. I was a typical oldest child and temperamentally bad at being told off. We do put incredible pressure on children. For me, it's important that my son enjoys his school experience - I don't want him to be a prodigy!

Of Juniors (or, as it had just become, Middle School) I have happier and stronger memories. It was the first time that you weren't under the tyranny of one teacher all day, who might have a downer on you. I was very anxious at parents' evenings, even though, generally speaking, I did pretty well. You had the experience of different teachers. Being taught French: that was so grown-up! I loved the school plays and got involved in writing playlets about time-travel.

At 12 or 13, I went up to Bentley Wood High School, in Stanmore, Middlesex. It was in the comprehensive system but had been a grammar school and, although there was no selection, entry there was done on a lottery basis. Some teachers were not comfortable with the change.

I have to say that I am so happy that I went to a comprehensive, and very proud that we were given the life-enhancing ability to relate to very different types of people. But at the time, it was tough. I was in the top sets and I think I was probably a fairly precious, insufferable brat. I wasn't always a barrel of laughs.

I was sure I'd go to university, because my parents, who both went to university in India, said I would, but that expectation wasn't very common. There were girls who were abler in some respects than me but had very different expectations.

I did 10 O-levels and went to Harrow Weald Sixth Form College. It was an unsettling time as you weren't with the people you'd been with for ages. I did English, History and French A-levels, and then went to the LSE to read law. I always wanted to be a lawyer - or rather, at one stage, I had the outrageous idea of being prime minister, but people said, "No, be a lawyer", and I thought, "Yes! To Kill a Mockingbird!". I had a super time and the LSE is still incredibly important to me. I'm now a governor.

The earnest, anxious person was no more. I concentrated on public and constitutional law but I got involved in the film society and would go to the National Film Theatre instead of going to contract-law lectures. I decided that life was not about getting a first - I got a 2.1. I also decided that I wasn't going to be a lawyer but would get myself a job as a trader in the City and earn enough to enrol at the New York University film school, but the only problem was that I was never any good at the mental arithmetic tests at the trading interviews.

I was pulling pints at the Middle Temple bar, which is where I met my husband, when I thought, "Why don't I go to Bar School?". I did the one-year Bar vocational course and got a funded pupillage - a pot of gold, the equivalent of a scholarship - with the chambers at 39 Essex Street.

Today, at Liberty, I'm a protester not a politician, and I don't have to sign up to a party's collective agreements. At last I have the privilege of being a professional teenager. There's an element in my work of, "I hate you! You've ruined my life! That's so unfair!", although I do try to be rather more constructive than that.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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