My best teacher

The story so far

1964 Born in Karachi, Pakistan

1968 Family emigrates to Britain

1989 Graduates in law from the University of East London

1991 Graduates from College of Law

1993 onwards Acts as Lawrence family solicitor in the inquiry into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence

1999 Voted legal personality of the year by his fellow professionals, and wins Emma award for multicultural personalities

2000 Awarded honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University; represents family of Zahid Mubarek, murdered at Feltham young offenders' institution

2001-2002 Represents parents at inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie.

At school, I was continually being told there were limits to what I could achieve. At home, Dad was saying the opposite.

I had a number of good teachers, but the real inspiration to succeed came from home. My father, who came over from Pakistan in 1968, had clear ideas about the importance of education. He had missed out on it and wanted to make sure his children did well. My earliest memories are of coming home from primary school and working on spelling, handwriting, grammar, reading and maths - every day.

At 11, I went to Lister comprehensive in East London, an impersonal school with more than 1,300 pupils. It was a time when there was a huge amount of racism. I had encountered some racism at primary school, but when I got to secondary school it became harder and tougher. School wasn't nice; it was something to get through. Even some of the teachers were racist. I remember one of them telling a group of us who were sitting together in class: "You look like the 10 little niggers."

I got into fights on a regular basis; some serious, some less so. I was bookish, but I learned to defend myself. I also learned how to find the right words to defuse a situation. I couldn't fight six bullies on my own, but I could put them down by saying something that made them look silly. Perhaps, subconsciously, that was the beginning of thinking like a lawyer, realising the power of words and argument.

My father had mapped out my future career very early. His dream was that I should become a doctor, and all through my childhood he bought me books he'd found in second-hand shops. He gave me biology books, all the classics and occasionally odd volumes of encyclopaedias, many of which I still have. I was a voracious reader and used the entire family's library tickets, borrowing 30 or 40 books at a time. The librarian came round every Saturday knocking on the door for overdue books. My dad also loved reading and had his own set of books, which he read over and over again. There was a black and white television in the house, but watching telly was frowned upon, so that was something I did in secret.

I got good grades and my reports were great, but at school I was continually being told there were limits to what I could achieve. At home, Dad was saying the opposite: "There are no limits to your success, you are going to achieve in everything you do." He gave us all a huge amount of confidence. His reaction to doing well was: "You need to keep it up." Mum would say: "Wonderful, I'm so proud of you," and was tactile. My father never showed his feelings.

He is a conundrum in lots of respects. He has been my inspiration, but I don't know him. He worked horrible hours and took on two jobs to keep us, yet he always made sure he spent time with us and supervised our homework. We knew he was proud of us because we got the feedback from the community, but he would never say anything nice to you directly.

I was in awe of him when I was growing up and respected him, but there was a distance between us. I couldn't go to him with my problems. He does have a soft spot, but I didn't realise it until I was grown up. The only time he told me he was proud of me was about five years ago, after the Stephen Lawrence case. He praised me in front of 250 people at a public meeting. I was close to tears. I've been told that when I am in the newspapers he cuts out every article, and they are kept under lock and key in his stash of special things. Although he is incredibly proud now, he didn't take it well when I decided not to go to medical school.

He is a great advocate of positive thinking. When I have periods of angst, I can hear him saying: "Failure is not a word we use!" My father's mantra has always been: "You will succeed."

Human rights lawyer Imran Khan was talking to Pamela Coleman

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