Until fifth grade I was a total nonentity as a student. My report cards were good but not exceptional. No one, teachers or fellow students, paid much attention to me. But when I entered Michael Jeans’ 5A class, something radical happened. By the end of that year I emerged as a top student and remained there throughout primary and high school, graduating from the latter as dux or valedictorian.

Judging by the number of comments on the school’s Facebook page praising his teaching ability, I wasn’t the only student in Mike Jeans’ class who experienced such a transformation. Our class had more than 50 students — typical of our baby-boomer generation — but he could set us an assignment then leave the room and everyone would apply themselves to the task, instead of disintegrating into chatter or messing around. I remember being conscious and quite proud of this.

But it wasn’t that he threatened us with punishment or promised rewards if we completed the task in time; that was not his style. Maybe it had something to do with the Enid Blyton books from which he would read to us at the end of each day, always leaving us hanging to discover what would happen next. Or perhaps it was related to the Friday afternoon concerts he had us perform. From Alan Bond’s violin solos to Julie Mills’ ballet dancing to the weekly serial that Keith Platel and I devised, this was a fun and powerful way of celebrating our talents and honoring our diversity.

For the first time in my life, I realized how much I enjoyed working with words and finding ways to express myself through them.

 Of all my memories of that redefining year, one has stayed with me more than the rest. We had just returned to school after a term break and Mike Jeans had us write a composition about something that happened to us during the holidays. Our family had visited friends who owned a farm 60 miles east of Perth. It was a rare and exciting adventure for me and my sister, as we milked cows and fed lambs, played with a pet kangaroo, and ate freshly made cream and butter. I had lots to draw on for the assignment.

Shortly before this, I had discovered adjectives, and working on the assumption that more adjectives made for better writing, I peppered my story with them. Adverbs, figures of speech, and other devices would have to wait till later. Mike Jeans commented favorably on my composition and gave it a good grade. It was an epiphanous moment. For the first time in my life, I realized how much I enjoyed working with words and finding ways to express myself through them.

In seventh grade I was awarded the English prize and won a story competition, and in high school I won several poetry prizes and a critique of an ABC television show. But after leaving school, my life took a different turn, one ironically in which creative writing not only didn’t feature but was actively discouraged. It would be another 21 years before my love of words was rekindled, and that by accident rather than design.

I have Michael Jeans to thank for first opening that window for me. When I recently discovered he was alive at 92, and I was able to connect with him through a third person, I was overjoyed. I asked him if he remembered me, not expecting he would, 64 years and thousands of students later. His reply took me by surprise, “Yes, an earnest trier, always with a ready smile.” Thinking he was confusing me with someone else, I sent him a photo of myself from that time. “That’s him,” he confirmed.

In discussing Michael Jeans with a fellow student, she told me he was sent from England to Australia with no family, as a Bernado Boy*. He had seen child abuse first-hand and promised never to crush a child’s self-esteem, no matter what. He certainly hadn’t crushed mine; quite the contrary. This explained a lot about this amazing man whom I was so privileged to have as my teacher at such a critical time in my life.

* Barnados is a British charity that cares for orphans, destitute and vulnerable children. Until 1967, they sent a number of British children to Australia and Canada.