A charming story of a time long-gone and the struggles of a young man with his first teaching assignment in a village at the back of beyond.
There was a bed, a timber floor, thin tar paper on one side for privacy from the nearby road but nothing else. The flimsiest of 'walls', no pegs or nails to hang even a hat, no door, no rug for cold morning bare feet, no bookshelf for a voracious reader, no bedside cupboard for a lamp or a glass of water, no light source - just a bed and a suitcase for the next two years.
In 1960, newly minted teacher Peter O'Brien started work as the only teacher at a bush school in Weabonga, two days' travel by train and mail car from Armidale.
Peter was only 20 years old and had never before lived away from his home in Sydney. He'd had some teaching experience, but nothing to prepare him for the monumental challenge of being solely responsible for the education of 18 students, ranging in age from 5 to 15 years old. With few lesson plans, scant teaching materials, a wide range of curious minds and ages to prepare for, Peter was daunted by the enormity of the task ahead.
Because of Weabonga's remoteness, the students were already at a disadvantage, but they were keen and receptive and had been blessed with an enthusiastic and committed teacher. Indeed it was the children and their thirst for learning who kept Peter afloat during the early days of shockingly inadequate living conditions, a deficient diet and the terrible loneliness he felt being isolated so far from family, friends and his burgeoning romance.
Bush School is an engaging and fascinating memoir of how a young man rose to a challenge most would shrink from today. It tells movingly of the resilience and spirit of children, the importance of learning and the transformative power of teaching.
'So many wonderful books, plays and films centre upon the importance of a dedicated and inspiring teacher in the lives of the very young. The reason is simple. Such teachers, and they are indeed rare, have a lifetime influence upon their pupils. I believe Peter O'Brien is such a teacher. Given Bush School chronicles the earliest days of Peter's teaching career, it's also interesting to note his memoir has 'a coming of age' aspect. A coming of age for Peter himself as he discovers so much about who he is in the remote community to which he's been assigned. Delightfully composed, Bush School has many voices. There is the evocation of a bygone era; there is historical and sociological comment; there is a strong sense of humanity; and above all, there is charm and warmth on every page.'
- Judy Nunn, author of Khaki Town
'O'Brien's beautiful memoir Bush School takes us back to a time when students said 'good-oh' and teachers were well-respected within their communities. We watch as O'Brien becomes a teacher; placing the children and their learning at the centre of his work whilst courageously navigating the isolated life of a remote town during the early sixties. O'Brien's story is told with great integrity. He explores the unique challenges and opportunities faced by small schools as well as delving into the grand endeavour that is "teaching". Bush School reminds us that teaching is an act of service and that teachers - then and now - are indispensable.'
- Gabbie Stroud, author of Teacher
Now in his 80s, Peter O'Brien is a former teacher and academic who was instrumental in starting up ANTaR to promote harmony between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians. He set up the 'Sea of Hands' idea, which saw hundreds of thousands of white hands being planted outside Parliament House and many other locations as a form of support and fund raising. His work with ANTaR was recognised with an Order of Australia.