June 12, 2013 - Mary Kraniak has spent most of her life imparting knowledge to eager young minds, but looking back, she realizes the learning process has really been a two-way street.
Oxford Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Mary Kraniak (far right, kneeling) retired last week after 23 years with the district. She posed with her last fourth-grade class in front of the young maple tree planted in her honor near the old football field.Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
"Being in a classroom with 30 children teaches you a lot," she said. "It teaches you patience. It teaches you that the most important thing is just loving those kids. That's basically what they've taught me – how to love."
Last week, Kraniak said goodbye to her last class, a group of fourth-graders at Oxford Elementary School, as she retired after 34 years of teaching.
"I guess what I'm going to miss most is being with young people because they really energize you and give you so much," she said. "People think teachers give so much, but I think it's the kids that really do the giving."
Besides "watching kids grow academically," Kraniak, who's lived in Oxford since 1979, said the most rewarding part of teaching has been "seeing how I've grown as a result of being around young people."
"I think I've grown to be more mature, more patient, more understanding of the differences in people and more respectful of what everybody has to offer," she said.
Kraniak began teaching with the Oxford school district in 1990. She started at Daniel Axford Elementary, taught at Lakeville Elementary for a little while, returned to DA and eventually moved to OES, where she spent the last nine years.
In the mid-1980s, she taught environmental studies in the OES building when it was an alternative high school called Options. She also taught fifth-grade at Kingsbury Country Day School in Addison Township during the late 1980s.
The annual class picnics are her fondest memory.
"Every year that I've been a teacher, I've brought my students to my home at the end of the year for a picnic. I don't know anybody else who does that," said Kraniak, who noted that years ago, those picnics took place on the 26-acre farm she used to own in the northern part of Oxford Township.
When asked to give the younger teachers at OES a piece of advice, Kraniak urged them to attend the high school commencement every year, so they can watch their former students receive their diplomas and begin their lives as adults.
"You can see on the students' faces how much it means to them when you show up," she said. "What you're saying, without words, is that you value all those hours you spent with them as their teacher. You're telling them, 'You were so important to me that I want to see you graduate and move on to the next phase in your life.'
"It means so much to those kids. That's why I think every teacher should go to their students' graduation."
One of Kraniak's favorite things to do at graduation is hand-deliver, whenever possible, letters that her former students wrote to themselves as part of a classroom exercise when they were in elementary school.
The purpose of these letters is to "inspire" their future selves as they head out into the world to attend colleges and pursue careers.
"At this age (10 or 11 years old), their thoughts are so pure and innocent," Kraniak said. "I think a lot of times their own words move them (when they read the letters as 17 and 18-year-olds)."
Kraniak's been requiring students to write these letters for the past nine years. However, the 2013 graduation was only the second year that she's had former students who were old enough to receive them.
"I have years of letters backed up," she said.
She plans to continue delivering the rest of them year after year until they're all gone.
If she can't deliver them in person, Kraniak will rely on the U.S. Post Office. She's already mailed letters to former students as close as Lake Orion and Clawson, and as far away as Georgia and Iowa.
As a retirement present, OES staff and students had a young maple tree planted in her honor near the old football field behind the Pontiac St. school.
"This is a great gift," Kraniak said. "For every teacher that retires, we should plant a tree because it's something that's going to last. It couldn't be more appropriate."
Kraniak plans to spend her retirement "practicing what I've been preaching to the kids all these years – make the world a better place."
"I want to go out and somehow make a direct impact," she said. "I may choose one cause to somehow make the world a better place.
"I haven't really figured it out quite yet, but my hobbies are gardening and farming, so I'll probably do something (involving) urban agriculture."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.