Surprise Thank You to Life-Changing Teacher

Decades after a teacher's inspiration, a former student says "thank you."

Sept. 5, 2008 — -- Cindi Rigsbee was nervous on her first day of school in 1963 at Bragtown Elementary in Durham, N.C. There was no kindergarten at the time, so the little girl was forced straight into first grade.

"I began to start not feeling good about myself," Rigsbee told "Good Morning America." "I thought I was too skinny. I thought my hair stuck out too much."

To make matters worse, Rigsbee said she felt no support or even attention from her teacher. But then, after two or three months, the principal came in and announced that the class was too big and that half of the class, Cindi included, would be moved to a room in the school's dank basement, and they would have a new teacher.

Rigsbee soon found the darkness of the basement overpowered by a new light in her life, her new teacher Barbara Warnecke.

"She was so full of energy and just such a happy person. She was just this ray of sunshine in the basement damp room," Rigsbee said. "She just made it such a happy place."

Her mother, Agnes Cole, noticed the difference Warnecke seemed to make in her daughter's life.

"She was sweet. She was pretty. She was nice. She gave Cindi, and I guess all of her students, a lot of attention," Cole said. "She brought everything out of Cindi."

Fell Out of Touch

Rigsbee said that because of Warnecke, reading, writing and poetry became her passion, and the two stayed close friends for years. When she was in fourth grade, Warnecke moved away but presented Rigsbee with a poetry book before she left.

"She wrote in there 'May each of us think of each other every time a poem is read,'" Rigsbee said.

The two remained pen pals for a while, and then in 1970 they lost touch.

Warnecke's last letter to her former student was postmarked from Buffalo, N.Y. "That's the last clue as to where she was."

As years went by, Rigsbee excelled and eventually became a teacher herself. From time to time, she would try to find Warnecke, but to no avail.

"She's always talked about her," Cole said. "And we have always discussed her and wondered where she was."

The Reunion

After Rigsbee was named North Carolina Teacher of the Year, she felt she owed it all to Mrs. Warnecke and wanted to thank her.

So she wrote to "Good Morning America" for help.

"There's this person out there somewhere who I haven't seen since 1967 who doesn't know she's impacted me the way she did," Rigsbee wrote. "I want her to know there was a skinny little girl once who didn't feel good about herself and then one day everything changed. Because of that day my life turned out differently and hopefully because of that, there are many students I've had an impact on that turned out differently."

Today on "GMA," Rigsbee finally got the opportunity to thank her inspirational teacher with a surprise visit from Warnecke.

The women embraced, and Rigsbee said through tears, "Do you remember me?"

Warnecke said when "GMA" first contacted her about a former student trying to find her, she knew right away it was Rigsbee.

"There was a connection," Warneke said of her relationship with Rigsbee. "The impact though, I can't tell you how humbled I am."

Rigsbee hopes she can inspire her students the way Warneke inspired her.

"You never know as a teacher how you change someone's life," she said.

If you want to thank a special person who made a huge impact on your life e-mail "GMA" by clicking here.