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My friend Peter

My friend Peter died this morning.

He was about 80, had a form of dementia and doing simple things had been hard for him the last couple of months. I like to think that he went at a time of his choosing.

But I want to tell you about how he influenced my life.

When I was a fledgling teacher, I was so lucky that my first school was Albion Primary School in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Lucky because Peter was the Assistant Principal there.

It was 1976. I was particularly ill-equipped to start teaching. I had spent three years at Teachers’ College at a time when the training of teachers was undergoing change, toward a more academic focus. I was probably told about curriculum, but I didn’t have a frame work to put it in, so it meant nothing to me. As well any documents we had to work with were about 20 years old and seemed rather skimpy.

I’m sure my supervising teachers on my teaching rounds attempted to show me what to do. But the whole experience of schools was so overwhelming that the little matter of what I was meant to be teaching slipped by me again. They must have been relieved when I left!

It was also the time of change in teaching methods, moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to individual differences and a child-centred approach. I avidly read John Holt and A.S. Neill’s ideas on child paced learning in open classrooms. I wanted to throw out all those old ways, but had no idea of what I was going to put in it’s place.

So there I was, with my own group of Grade 5s, with ideas about how things should be, but none about how to get there. It was a difficult and tumultuous year for me.

I wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Peter. He took me under his wing. I found out later that he interceded with the Principal, telling Paul to give me more time, that there was something there in my teaching that could be developed.

I would look at the other first year teachers who knew how to set up reading and spelling groups and wonder how they knew what to do. They went to a different teachers’ college; maybe they were taught different things, and maybe they listened when they were being taught! But Peter also helped me understand that my ideas of education had validity too. In my third year the school was prepared to experiment with Marlene and I teaming together, combining our grades into one. Peter’s influence!

Peter’s other big influence on my teaching was that he was my first role model. He was a country lad, open-hearted, warm, funny, honest. And that’s how he was as a teacher. He could find the good in every child and they loved him because he could crack a joke and make them feel special. Guitar playing and singing was a passion, and their eyes would light up when ‘Mr. O.’ walked into the classroom with his guitar. He could keep the whole school entertained with his story telling and singing. And our Grade 5 camps at Hepburn Springs were crazy fun times.

I’ve never been a teacher with that big presence, but Peter taught me that there is a way to reach every child, and that every child should be reached. He taught me that a smile and a heart-felt “Great job” goes a long way. He taught me that we all need laughter and singing, and that out curriculum should never be so crowded that it gets squeezed out. He helped me realise that teaching is about connections, and spelling groups are important, but not that important.

Peter didn’t teach me what to teach. That came gradually, and was a few more schools away. But more importantly, he showed me how to teach.

And we became good friends, Marlene, Peter and I. We even sang folksongs in a pub a couple of times! Marlene had a beautiful voice, and Pete was our guitarist, and who knows what I contributed!

Then our lives lead off in different ways. Peter and I would get back in touch, then go our ways again. Until a couple of years ago, when, by pure chance, I found out that he was now in a residential home about 10 minutes from me. So I visited him most Mondays. We spoke a lot about his childhood, his sporty days (he played a couple of games for Essendon Football Club), the country schools he taught in. He loved trains and dogs and birds and acting and writing poetry. And his kids, of course.

But gradually those things slipped from his memory. Right to the end Peter was always gentle and kind, and even when I couldn’t understand what he was telling me, he somehow managed to make me laugh!

So, I will miss him, but treasury the memory of our friendship.

By anne54

Botanic artist

26 replies on “My friend Peter”

It is one of life’s great gifts to be able to have full circle stories with the people in our lives. Peter helped you and then you were able to visit him and help him feel connected, even while losing his memories. My Mum has dementia and it gets harder and harder to connect with her, so I can appreciate what your visits must have meant to Peter. When a good friend of mine died 7 years ago someone told me ‘we die twice, once when our body goes, and again the last time our name is spoken’. With all of his connections through teaching, I’m sure his name will be on many people’s lips for a long time yet. Hugs to you Anne.

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“Full circle stories” is a beautiful way of putting it. I do feel that I have completed the circle with Peter. I understand too how difficult it can be to connect with your Mum. Peter would talk to me, sometimes I could understand words that helped me know what he was talking about, but mostly I took the cues from him, nodding or smiling in what I hoped was the right place. But the talking was very important to him. So hugs to you too, as dementia is a dreadful disease, and so difficult in those we love.

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What a beautiful, heartfelt memorial you have delivered, a gift of knowing a little of someone we never knew but wish we did, who leaves the world a little poorer, sadder for his loss but better for his life and his connection with his lovely friend Anne.

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He taught you well. You have written a wonderful tribute to this man who taught you to teach, and thousands of children owe him a debt of gratitude and affection. How lovely that you were able to show him the same love and encouragement that he showed you all those years ago, and lovely that you were in a position to do so. Vale Peter, your name lives on.

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What a wonderful man! And it’s so great that you’ve shared his influence with us, and I’m sure you’ve passed along some of the lessons he taught you, to new teachers. He’ll live on in many ways.

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I hope that I have passed on some of the things he taught me,. However, you never know what it is that people will pick up from you! I certainly know how influential he was on my teaching style.

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Oh Anne, I’m so sorry. It seems to be the time for losing people, but your memories of Peter are so important. Thank you for sharing them because in doing so, you plant him in our memories too. I wish I’d known him. -hugs-

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I think we all have someone like Peter in our lives, those big personalities that are open and honest. The country lad was very strong in Peter, even though he lived in the city for most of his adult life. I hope there are still teachers like him in the system, ready with a guitar and a song.

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I’m sorry for your loss, Anne. Peter sounds like a true mentor and a wonderful friend. I’m glad you could reconnect with him towards the end of his life. I enjoyed hearing about your early days of teaching. You retell it in such rich detail. It’s good to remember our early days with perspective. Xo

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Aren’t memories funny things? I feel that I have a very poor memory ~ many people are able to remember in great detail. But the more I have been thinking about Peter, the more has come back to me. It was lovely to have reflection time at his funeral to think deeply about those memories, and of course one triggered another. Then there was the sharing of memories in the eulogy and after, that reminded me of more. Thank you for your kind words, and support.

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