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Eriskay, Outer Hebrides (Credit: Deirdre Carney)
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A Pupil Returns

By Deirdre Carney

Now retired, I sometimes smile to think that that arguably my best lesson was one where all I did was sit and listen.

My first primary teaching job, in 1996, was in the tiny one-teacher school on the staggeringly beautiful island of Eriskay. We were in the middle of a project about "Our School", trawling through over a century of log books and registers. Three siblings had a great-grandfather who was a former pupil and was in his late nineties. We invited him to speak to us about his school days. The children prepared questions to ask him and finally the big day arrived.

Our guest was a spry and highly articulate man who was clearly moved to be back in his little school sharing memories with us. We learned that each child had to bring a peat for the stove every day and that the nearest neighbour would stand armed guard over his pile of peats in the morning in case of pilferers. He told us about the sometimes harsh discipline and described to the wide-eyed class the ordeal of the tawse, a leather strap used for punishment. The children were astonished to learn of the privations and poverty their great-grandparents had endured. We heard about games children played in simpler times. Question followed question, and before we knew it, an hour had gone by and our guest had to leave.

We filmed his visit and, years later, the children still asked to see the video as an end-of-term treat. I took this as testimony to to the pull of the past and the sense of belonging our fellow islander had brought us. Now retired, I sometimes smile to think that that arguably my best lesson was one where all I did was sit and listen.

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