Saturday, September 6, 2008

Finding Mrs. Warnecke

Mrs. Warnecke has always been a mythological creature to me. Since I haven't seen her in over 40 years, my mind surely has fluctuated between what may be reality and what may be memories of being six years old. But I do remember that I arrived in first grade to have a teacher who loved one little girl in the class, and it wasn't me. Mrs. Riley didn't try to hide the fact that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Shelia was her favorite. Shelia was my friend, too; we all loved her, and I loved to visit her house because she had all the Barbie stuff. And when I say all, I mean ALL! She had the Barbie car and the Barbie pool and the Barbie mansion. And the teacher loved her. She was the luckiest girl in the world!

Mrs. Riley wasn't mean or abusive to me, but I felt invisible in that room. When it became obvious that she had an errand to be run, I would slide to the edge of my desk and raise my hand as high as I could. But Shelia always went. Always.

One month into school, the principal came to tell us that some of us would be moved to another class. You would think that first graders may be somewhat anxious about that announcement, but I wasn't. It sounded like an adventure to me. Half of us were led to our new classroom, but we were surprised when he led us outside! We marched in a pretty little line out the door, around between the gym and main building, and down the steps, into a hole actually, that led to a basement door. As many times as I had walked by those steps, on the way to the gym to do the Hokey Pokey, I had never even known that a room existed down there. Suffice it to say that, as a teacher, I cannot imagine what the new teacher must have thought when the principal showed her the damp, dark place that would be her classroom. But as students, we were all giddy with excitement. We had been "chosen" to be in a new class, and we had left Mrs. Riley upstairs. (We also left Shelia there, but she and I continued to be best friends, and I played "Barbie" often at her house.)

What happened in the next few months in that classroom can only be described as MAGICAL. Our new teacher, Mrs. Barbara Warnecke, showed up with a big smile on her face, and she loved each of us unconditionally while teaching us to read from the Dick and Jane books. We thought the fact that we believed we saw beady little eyeballs staring at us from the closet when we hung up our coats made our classroom more exciting than any other room. We had pet rats! Also, that year, I wrote my first poem. It was entitled "Stars" and it wasn't even grammatically correct. But my new teacher loved it. She encouraged me so much that throughout the years I would continue to write little poems and trot my second and third grade little legs down to her classroom to let her read them. During those visits, she always treated me as if she didn't have a class of her own to teach, as if I were the most important student in the world.

She eventually moved away, as so many of our teachers did (living in Durham, most of our teachers were there while their husbands attended school at Duke University; we lost teachers after Duke's graduation every year) but we stayed in touch for awhile. Somehow I lost her in 1970. Today I found her again. And the years between seem like only a moment.

Let me begin by saying that I don't usually get too nervous about speaking in public. As a teacher, I speak "in public" daily, even if the audience is a room full of seventh graders. But on this morning, I was terrified! I was wide awake at 3:30 AM and I never got anywhere close to sleep after that. A car picked us up at 6:30, and I barely remember the ride to the Good Morning America studio. I felt so much pressure - I wanted to represent the teachers of North Carolina and the staff and students of Gravelly Hill Middle School well. I had heard that the Central Office of Orange County Schools would be gathered around a television as well as a fifth grade class at Belville Elementary School in Brunswick County. I had spoken to that class last week, and they have become my "adopted" class.

Once in the studio, I was met by Katie, the "live producer." (This role, as I understand it, is different from Brian the Producer's role - he actually came to my house to film and then he wrote and edited the piece.) Katie welcomed me and told me that I would be on national television making a plea for someone to come forward with the whereabouts of Mrs. Warnecke. In other words, they hadn't found her. But I was so nervous I could barely hear Katie speaking...I just followed her around like a little puppy. She took me to my dressing room, and we briefly discussed clothes; I actually changed from the suit I was wearing to another one with "more color" that Katie liked better. Next I passed Kate Snow, the GMA weekend anchor, as I walked to hair and makeup. Kate had huge rollers in her hair but was as beautiful as ever. After my hair and makeup were done, I felt like I didn't look like, well, me. But I was assured that I looked the way I needed to look for the lights on the set, and I was too stressed out to argue.

Katie, the "Live Producer," watches me get my hair and make up done.

Katie stayed with me almost non-stop and continually texted on her phone. I thought her friends must be up early! Later I would learn that she was "guarding" me to keep me from leaving the dressing room and that she was texting the other "live producer" who was with Mrs. Warnecke in another room. During this time I caught a quick glimpse of Sally Field who was on the show, too, but she was surrounded by people (body guards?) so she was difficult to see. And Lord knows I was too nervous to speak so it's probably a good thing I didn't try to talk to her. I'm sure I was so focused on little Cindy the first grader that I would've called her Gidget. I've always wanted to ask, "How is it possible that Gidget has osteoporosis?" But not today.

Next I was led to the studio and I walked right into Sam Champion who flashed the biggest smile at me, stuck out his hand to grab mine, and acted like he had known me forever. We made the turn to step in behind the cameras, and I think the biggest surprise was that there were so many people in the room. There was a studio audience there but also numerous crew members that took up a great deal of space. Katie kept pointing out places for my husband and me to stand; we ended up beside the table of chef Sarah Moulton who had prepared Back to School snacks on a long table in the studio.

Here's me just before my interview. It is possible that this is a picture of me being the most terrified I've ever been in my life...

I waited, shaking, and finally was pointed to a chair beside Chris Cuomo, the morning anchor. (Robin Roberts was originally to do the interview, but she had joined Diane Sawyer at the Republican National Convention.) Chris Cuomo was a complete gentleman, and he made me feel at ease immediately. Suddenly I felt more at peace; I think I knew that the worst was over - the waiting and anticipation! Chris began talking and I listened, in a surreal state, as he talked about my life. I glanced over at the monitor, afraid for the emotional surge that may come, and saw the picture of my elementary school that burned to the ground in 1991. I began fighting tears at that moment. Chris started talking to me - I don't remember a thing he said - but he diverted me from paying attention to the narrative that was on the teleprompter. I saw my sister talking on the monitor and then I saw my mother. I said to Chris, "There's my mama..." and I surely thought I would lose it then. But I held on and by the time he started talking to me again, I was okay. I said what I needed to say, without stammering too much, and then he told me that "someone" was going to help me find Mrs. Warnecke. I remember thinking, "If someone can help me find her, why can't they just go find her and tell her I'm looking for her?" Then I heard the studio audience begin to clap, and I knew she must be there!

Here we are waiting, and they're counting "five seconds to air, four, three..."

For the next few seconds, as the video footage is showing me gasp and run to hug her, I am no longer Cindi Rigsbee, Teacher of the Year. Instead I am Cindy Cole, first grader at Bragtown Elementary, and my emotions are no longer contained, even if all America is watching! To me, Mrs. Warnecke looked the very same, and I felt like it hadn't been forty years since I'd seen her. I was shocked to hear that when Brian called her house, she guessed the student looking for her was me. However, I was not surprised that she was funny and making jokes about hoping that this wasn't a show about a former student-turned-prisoner who wanted to blame her for ruining her life.

One thing I want to remember forever: during the piece and after - there were very few people in that room who weren't crying. From the studio audience to the crew to my big manly husband, there was barely a dry eye in the studio! And as I tried to manuever my way back to the dressing room to get my things, I was stopped repeatedly by folks from the editing room and other places in the building who were crying and wanting to tell me about their special teachers.

Next Dr. and Mrs. Warnecke and David and I had breakfast to catch up. It was so interesting to hear about my first grade year from my teacher's perspective. Most amazing, I think, is that this phenomenal teacher who made such an impact on me was only twenty-three years old that year! I asked her how she could possibly have been so nurturing when she didn't even have children of her own then. I said, "How is it that you were such a good teacher even though you were so young?" She answered, "I thought I wasn't. I was trying to teach reading out of those Dick and Jane books, and I thought I didn't know what I was doing."

Mrs. least for this little girl, you did.

We exchanged contact information and hugged one last time. And now I hope to share with teachers something that we hear often but maybe forget to think about - the tremendous impact we have on the lives of children. I hope that my story of Mrs. Warnecke will be a reminder of the importance of our jobs and that we must understand that impact with every lesson we plan and every comment we make to a student. Someday we could be someone's Mrs. Warnecke. And what an enormous responsibilty.

We've had several celebrity sightings since our arrival in New York. Last night we got in a chaotic mass of paparazzi and turned to see Miley Cyrus on one side of us and Rhianna on the other. This morning David came face-to-face with Hilary Clinton while walking on Fifth Avenue. But the only celebrity I wanted to see was Mrs. Barbara Warnecke. To little Cindy Cole, she's a mythological rock star...

Our last stop in New York was a trip to the Disney store to buy gifts for our grandchildren. I looked up and saw a quote on the wall that summed up the past two days:

"It's just as I always dreamed it would be."

Yes, it was...


Tracey said...

What a great story, Cindi! Here is the link to the video in case anybody else missed it and wants to cry!


kSm said...

I just balled my eyes out! What a wonderful piece and I'm so glad everything turned out the way it did!!!

Anonymous said...

Incredible! I'm a teacher I missed this on the news, but your retell of it is so inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story!

Cristie said...

Beautiful blog!! I LOVE the ending!!

Lisa said...

I was so glad I was home that morning and couldn't believe that it was you - from NC and what a great story it was. I too was crying as they went to commercial. I tried to log in to TLN - but couldn't and glad so many days later to be able to Thank You for taking time to honor your teacher. We all have teachers that we remember and rarely are we able to go back in time as you did! We shared this in class and my college students are amazed at the teachers they remember and surprised about those they can't. THANKS! from my classes for sharing your moment.