Peter O’Brien – Bush School

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
Available for pre-order

This is a book so near to my heart that I find it hard to write impartially – in fact, I will not try.

Peter O’Brien’s memoir, Bush School, is mostly an account of that part of his life when as a 20-year old single young man he was sent in 1960 to Weabonga, one teacher school in a remote area out of Tamworth.

As one whose first teaching post in 1972 was a four teacher school, though not particularly remote, I felt such a deep sense of familiarity with everything he writes that I was immediately transported back to my 20s and the challenges of beginning teaching.

Barbie talks to Peter O’Brien about Bush School

Bush School is a detailed and moving account of Peter’s development as a young man and as a blossoming professional. He arrived at Weabonga already with ideas about child-centred learning, way ahead of his time in the NSW public school education world.

Peter was finding his way professionally with his small band of children from age 5 to 15 and his account is so graphic, so well-remembered in its minutiae, that we are also there with him. We can almost smell the pencil shavings.

This book speaks of grace, not because Peter O’Brien gilds any lilies. He is forthright about the difficulties of his situation, his initial accommodation falling well short of reasonable expectations – in a house with no running water and in a village with no electricity.

He is careful not to disparage the family who offered their house to ensure that the teacher have somewhere to stay and thus that the school could open. He is acutely aware of their poverty. He merely points out the parlous conditions which he endured (with considerable stoicism) until, mercifully, a local landowning family took him in.

For those interested in the way our public education system operated from the post-World War 2 years to the 1960s, this is an interesting and informative journal. Peter O’Brien is an insightful observer of society with a keen interest in politics and justice and a sincere respect for his fellow human beings. This ethos is practised in his professional and personal life – he was awarded an OA for his services to Indigenous Australians for his work as co-founder of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation.

After leaving Weabonga at the end of his two-year stint, Peter O’Brien returned to Sydney to marriage, family life and further academic study. He worked in progressive schools where children were involved in decision making about their learning and where they worked with their teachers on achieving educational outcomes based on their interests.

Returning in 2019 to Weabonga with his son for the first time since leaving in 1961, he meets one of his former students and finds the essence of the child he knew still present in the 70-year-old. 

Peter O’Brien is a man who has allowed events and experiences to touch him deeply and who has used that emotional response to make things better in whatever way he can. He reminds us, if we ever need that reminder, that to teach is to serve one’s fellow human beings and that a good teacher can change the course of someone’s life.

For us to be flung back in time to a nation where children dubbed things Bonza is not merely an exercise in nostalgic charm. It is a window allowing insight into the way we have as Australians perceived family, community, the land, wealth and poverty.

A man driving a small brown biscuit tin of a car in 1961 made a difference to the community of Weabonga, to each and every child whose progress he encouraged and whose individuality he valued. That same man carrying the weight and the lightness of the years that followed has given us a great gift with his published memoir.

Bush School is available for pre-order at: https://www.booktopia.com.au/bush-school-peter-o-brien/book/9781760876807.html

My thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending me a review copy and for facilitating my interview with Peter.