My Schools days: Sandi Toksvig

Where did you go to school?

Kindergarten and L’Institution de L’Ascension, which was run by terrifyingly strict nuns, all in Copenhagen. Later, I was thrown out of two of five schools in America, then sent to Tormead, a Surrey boarding school with high walls and barbed wire, which is wonderfully academic now.

Did you like it?

Danish kindergarten was very wholesome with lots of playing outside and the obligatory nap after lunch with the teacher completely flat out and 30 children wide awake. I learned a great deal more from my father than I ever learned at school. I was bored in school a lot of the time. Aged five, in the convent, I spent playtimes lying prostrate in church, which I’d seen novices do, thinking some tremendous shaft of light would pierce me with a Damascene moment. I’m still waiting ...

Tormead - intended to contain children whose parents were abroad - constituted four of the worst years of my life. I arrived at this hideous, freezing place with a thick New York accent and the girls immediately sent me to Coventry for six weeks. I was cold and miserable. But I’m over it and don’t want therapists writing in…

Did you get into trouble?

I was questioning, which can be perceived as naughtiness. We weren’t allowed to use play areas so, convinced I was right, I led a strike when I was seven, reducing one nun to tears. My father, a journalist, taught me about strike action but didn’t realise I was asking him for advice.

What subjects were you good at?

I did arts rather than science. There wasn’t a subject I didn’t find fascinating. I think it peculiar to the British system that they didn’t interlink and overlap subjects, like looking at geography in its historical or economic context. Learning is not finite. I did nine O-levels, with three (Latin, religious knowledge and economics) on my own for fun because, with my parents 3,000 miles away, there was nothing else to do but study. We were allowed into town for 20 minutes and I discovered Thorpe’s Bookshop in Guildford, which saved my life.

Did you have a favourite teacher?

Miss Marian Shackleton, the headmistress, was a remarkably wise woman who started giving me responsibility. She made me head of house and made me board in a room for two with one girl that I couldn’t abide. We were furious for two weeks but she’s now the only person I’m still in touch with from school. Miss Clarke taught me history and politics. I made a great friend of my English teacher, Lorna Hudson, fearsomely intelligent and now at Berkeley University, California.

What did you want to be?

A barrister. I was very politically aware and had great notions of social justice and doing good. In Britain, I discovered law is about money, privilege and class. I shall never test it, but the chances are that I could get away with murder.

College or university?

I applied to Cambridge to study law and got in. Another girl got into Oxford. The school had a half-day holiday because they couldn’t believe any of their girls could have done something so extraordinary. Most people from my school went to Eastbourne Catering College. I had a fascination for international law, and founding constitutions. I studied Islamic law which is rather beautiful, unlike its extremist interpretations. At Inns of Law dinners, a fledgling like myself would sit with older lawyers, learn by asking questions, and be fined a bottle of port for making mistakes. I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t speak. I thought, "I can do battle with this for the rest of my life, or do something else".

What is the most important lesson you have learned outside of formal education?

On our sailing tour of Britain, my great friend John McCarthy told me that nobody can hurt you inside unless you give them permission. A remarkable truth that I don’t always manage. Often, we both found the journey tedious and exhausting, so arriving at Holy Island, we asked the Lama Yeshe how to deal with this. "Look for what’s good in the moment," he said. It’s stood me in good stead.

• Sandi Toksvig is a humorist, writer and broadcaster. She will be talking about her two recent books, The Gladys Society and The Travels of Lady Bulldog Burton, at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 31 October.