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I adored my maths teacher who, because I'm numerically dyslexic, said there was no point in me doing the subject and allowed me to drop it

My earliest school memory is of custard - horrible, thick, lumpy custard that was served at my first primary school, somewhere off the Finchley Road in north London. It put me off custard for life. Then, when I was seven or eight, my very liberal parents sent me to the King Alfred, a co-educational school in London that was based on the ASNeillSummerhill philosophy that if you treat children like adults they will integrate smoothly into society. I don't remember if the school dinners at King Alfred were any better - my whole memory of school is vague - but I do remember spending much of my time there gazing out of the window, daydreaming.

I was a bossy, boisterous child and I had a gang. I'm the middle of three girls. The others were smarter than me. My elder sister went to a grammar school, then to Dartington and became a speech therapist. The younger one went to the Lycee Francais, has a PhD in Chinese and became a lawyer.

Being a progressive school, King Alfred had no uniform, and we called our teachers by their first names. Deciding what to wear became a big deal.

Sometimes I'd put on three things - a pair of trousers and two frocks - and choose on the way to school, stuffing the rejects into my satchel.

I was good at art and English, although my grammar is appalling. But I'm numerically dyslexic, which is why I adored my maths teacher, Roy Greenfield, who said there was no point in me doing it any more and allowed me to drop it. He was a benevolent, bald-headed man who realised that for me maths was torture.

My English teacher at King Alfred was great too. She was very small with glasses. I think her name was Elizabeth. She taught a subject I was interested in and found fascinating. I loved reading aloud in class and, of course, I was part of the school drama group. I remember playing Rosalind in As You Like It and I was damned fine. My boyfriend played Orlando, which helped.

It was a fantastic school. I was in a class of 20 and was treated as an individual. We had music lessons and an open-air theatre. The school was run by the pupils, and I was once class councillor. Even so, I was miserable. King Alfred left it to your conscience whether or not you worked, and I had a very bad conscience. I think I needed parameters, something to kick against, and I didn't have them at school, so I kicked against my parents instead. I was a real troublemaker.

Next, I was packed off to a Quaker boarding school in Somerset to get my A-levels. There was a wonderful history master who had a gammy finger, so as he wrote on the blackboard, he would rub out bits of the line above the one he'd just written. He used to wear his pyjamas underneath his trousers.

Sometimes his flies were slightly undone and you could see his pyjamas peeking through. I was very homesick and was only there for a year.

Acting was in my blood. Despite being born Jewish, I flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a nun, attracted by the romance of the black gown, the celibacy, the quiet and the singing. I also considered becoming an artist.

But by the time I was 10 I knew I'd act. My parents tried to dissuade me because I'm not very good at rejection, which is what this business is all about. With their encouragement I went to art school and took a secretarial course.

Eventually I went to drama school, where I had a fantastic teacher by the name of Litz Prisk, an extraordinary woman who taught movement with a kind of magic. I used to think that education had been wasted on me but it really came to the fore when I began acting; I am totally motivated when researching the parts I play.

Actress Zoe Wanamaker was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1949 Born New York

1957-64 King Alfred school, London

1964-66 Sidcot school, Somerset

1967-68 Hornsey College of Art

1969 Central School of Speech and Drama

1976-81 Performs with RSC

1997 Plays title role in Sophocles's Electra at Chichester, London and New York

2000 Awarded CBE. Stars in BBC comedy My Family with Robert Lindsay (fifth series currently in production)

2001 Plays Quidditch coach Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

2003 Presenter at National Teaching Awards; plays Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday at the Royal National Theatre (to November 22); My Family named best comedy at National Television Awards

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