Bibliophile | Peter O’Brien takes readers to ‘Bush School’

Bush School
by Peter O’Brien
Allen & Unwin

In 2017 Peter O’Brien was invited to a reunion of students who had graduated from Balmain Teachers College sixty years before. At the gathering, it was suggested that those who had been sent to remote one-teacher schools record their experiences for historical interest.

It wasn’t long before O’Brien exceeded the few hundred word limit and, on seeing the growing manuscript, his son encouraged him to keep writing. In 2019 the two of them went back to Weabonga where the school building was exactly as it had been sixty years earlier, although it had not been used as a school for more than fifty years.

O’Brien’s memoir takes us back to 1960 when, as a twenty year-old, he travelled for two days from Armidale to the remote town. There were 18 pupils, aged from 5 to 15 years, from 8 families from the town and surrounding farms. And the school didn’t have any electricity, running water or sewerage.

Wary of strangers, the children all hid from him on the first day, and that was when he realized that completing a teaching qualification in no way equipped him to survive in this one-teacher school in the middle of nowhere with minimal resources. But survive he did, although he his atrocious living conditions made him think seriously about giving up.

As well as finding his way in the classroom and persuading his charges to engage with the prescribed curriculum, he had to overcome personal challenges including having no other adult to converse with. He remembers, “Having no other adult to talk with, I sometimes chatted away to myself when the children had gone home. It would have been terribly lonely otherwise.”

O’Brien’s progressive student-centred learning techniques brought gratifying results and he developed a deep appreciation of what country kids can bring to the learning environment. He also slowly became part of the community, finding other adults to converse with and eventually bought a car to that he could drive to Sydney occasionally to see his girlfriend.

O’Brien’s life moved in different directions when the two year stint was up and he returned to Sydney, but his warm memories are a valuable addition to our history. It is also a reminder of the sacrifices people living in country areas have made for Australia to advance.

Lezly Herbert

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