Annette Wetzel: The Teacher Who Has No Idea She Changed My Life
A few years ago, I emceed the American Cancer Society's Making Strides event in downtown Owensboro. I have done so many times, but this particular day stands out for me. See, I had planned to emcee the opening ceremonies then head to the house, but I ended up walking the event. Along the way, I met up with my former 9th grade algebra teacher, Annette Wetzel, who was walking the event that day not only as a supporter, but also as a survivor. For much of the duration of the route, we walked alongside one another and Mrs. Wetzel shared the details of her breast cancer battle and recovery. It was clear that this journey had changed her life in so many ways. I pondered, many times that day, interjecting to tell her the profound impact she had on my life decades before. But that day, that event, that encounter was truly about her and the countless others who have walked that walk and braved that fight. Today though, during Teacher Appreciation Week, I have decided to finally share my story with her. She has no idea that, with one sentence, she literally changed the course of my life.
For the context of this story, I need to confess that, like so many kids growing up, I waged war against a lack of self-esteem. Believe it or not, through middle school and the early part of high school, I was relatively quiet and much of that stemmed from the way I felt about my appearance. Sure, I got good grades. I could always write. I was theatrical (I know you're shocked). And, while it may not have been as fine-tuned as it is now, I always had a pretty quick and sarcastic sense of humor. But I never, and I mean never, felt comfortable in my own skin.
In middle school, I had these big ears like Happy from Rudolph's Shiny New Year. To try and cover them up, I kept my hair long. Because I had long hair and insanely high cheekbones, I looked like a girl . . . a lot. In fact, I used to wear a baseball hat everywhere just so I wouldn't be mistaken. People often make jokes about the effects of puberty. But, trust me! I couldn't wait to go through it because life before it was hell on Earth.
High school wasn't much better, because my growth spurt didn't hit until the summer before my junior year. In 10th grade, I was diagnosed with some random astigmatism and had to wear . . . wait for it . . . bifocals. I remember showing up to school with my glasses the day after I got them. Even my friends made fun of me. And, while I know they were kidding, they were echoing the same things I was saying to myself standing in front of the mirror. I never fully hated myself, but I definitely hated how I looked.
Like it or not, that's the culture in which we live. We, as a people, are endlessly concerned about how we look and how others see us. And kids go through this every single day. I was one of those kids completely uncomfortable with the skin I was in. And while I was building confidence in other ways- with academics, sports, theatre and friendships- I could never fully own it because I couldn't fully feel it. There was a considerable physical roadblock to my mental well-being.
The long-awaited growth spurt hit between my sophomore and junior year. I literally grew about eight inches over the course of three months. The summer between my junior and senior year was even more eventful. I had a gum graft, had my wisdom teeth yanked out of my face and got braces. But the physical changes that I longed for were finally happening and I was starting to feel better, much better about Chad.
And this is where Mrs. Wetzel comes in. I mentioned earlier that she doesn't know that she changed my life. In fact, I have a hunch she won't recall the encounter that did it. But I remember it like it was yesterday. It didn't take place in her math class. It didn't place in the hallways. It actually took place after I graduated from Daviess County High School.
I was in college at KWC and decided to go back to DCHS one Friday night to attend a football game. The irony is- I only went to one or two of them total while I was in high school. Mrs. Wetzel happened to be working the gate that night. I remember stepping forward to pay for my ticket. I think it took her a second to recognize me. But, after I said "Hey, Mrs. Wetzel," she placed me. Then she said it. She said, "Chad, my goodness. You're growing up to be a handsome young man." In that moment, for the first time in my life, I actually felt like it.
I thanked Mrs. Wetzel that night and told her it was good to see her. But it was more than that. She may not recall that night at the ticket table. I, on the other hand, will never forget it. It's no exaggeration to say that brief reunion between teacher and student completely changed the course of my life and how I approach it and carry myself through it. With a simple gesture, a simple compliment, Mrs. Wetzel helped me erase years of self-doubt and an agonizing lack of self-esteem.
It's important to say too that what she did for me that night is not about appearance. It's about how we internalize our insecurities and burden our beings with the expectations of others and ourselves. That kind of weight can slump our shoulders and drag us down to the ground. While it sounds so superficial, it's anything but. I spent the bulk of my formative years dreading the process of growing up so much that it affected who I was inside, not out. And, in just one evening, under some Friday night lights, Mrs. Wetzel wiped away the wear and tear. I walked into Panther Stadium feeling "handsome", feeling like I had scored a touchdown. In an arena surrounded by bright, shining lights, I actually felt like one for a change. I was finally, finally comfortable in my own skin.
So, there's my story. My story of the teacher who has no idea she changed my life. But Annette Wetzel did just that. Thanks to the kindness of this teacher, I learned the most valuable lesson of all for a student . . . to be comfortable with me. The lesson was learned and I have never looked back.