By David Schriemer
With great anticipation, Betsy Wunderlin taught her very first class of students in 1992 at Indian Lake Elementary. She taught second grade. She had always wanted to be a teacher like her mother and grandmother. “I know it sounds cliché. I wanted to touch lives, to make things better.”
She had no idea of the profound impact she had that very first year on little Charlie Smith.
Charlie was “very nervous” starting 2nd grade at Indian Lake. He felt different because his family struggled to put food on the table and keep adequate housing. Home life was not stable. He wanted to be liked and for his new teacher to like him.
“I knew right off the bat he was so sweet. He was so loveable. He was smart and aware of things,” says Betsy.
He remembers Miss Wunderlin bringing snacks for everyone so he wouldn’t be embarrassed by being the only one getting snacks to eat. They both recall multiple times when he was overwhelmed with emotion and she held him tight and whispered to him as he cried.
He recalls her choosing him to be recognized for good behavior. The reward was to cut off Principal Rick Szabla’s tie in front of the whole school. “I was so happy that day.”
At Christmas, Betsy gave the book “The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash” to each student. On the inside cover in fancy writing his said, “To Charlie, Merry Christmas.” Despite multiple moves, he still has that treasured book.
Charlie and Betsy didn’t have much contact until 2003 when Charlie, now Chuck, a high school senior, had an English assignment to write to a teacher who was special to him. Chuck wrote to Betsy, now Betsy Breitenbach. “She’s been special to me. Others didn’t think I’d amount to anything.” Chuck wrote his thanks and apologized for any bad behavior. Betsy says, “It was so sweet but he was so hard on himself.” She keeps that letter in a special place.
There were bumps in the road but Chuck earned his diploma and went on to a career in heating and cooling. He enjoys helping others, like when he fixed the furnace of a local retired couple on Christmas Day. Betsy and Chuck would periodically cross paths in town and struck up a friendship. Betsy credits Chuck for “teaching me how far love and kindness goes.”
About 8 years ago Chuck asked Betsy, “Find someone in your class who reminds you of me, who’s having a hard time.” Since then every year he’s done something to help that particular child. Some years he gave cash to a parent so they could buy Christmas gifts, other years he’d buy something himself. He did what he could to make that child’s life a little happier.
Chuck has vowed to live life in gratitude, to help others just as his teacher helped him. “I’m not chasing money anymore.” Because of his experience of being in need, he notices the needs around him that others might miss. Then he finds ways to help.
Betsy continues to encourage and mentor him. It’s part of her DNA. She tells him, “You have gone through the fire and come out the other end. I’m so proud of you.” Her empathy and skill as a new teacher 30 years ago helped a scared little boy become the kind man he is today.
By David Schriemer