Among the many things that have changed in the era of social distancing and COVID-19 is the way we say good bye to retiring teachers.
On Wednesday afternoon, a 30-minute motorcade wound its way through the Centennial Farms neighborhood in Pittsfield Township, home to retiring teacher Diane Junga.
Junga has spent 31 years in teaching. She taught for 10 years in Ohio before the Junga family moved back to Michigan. She was a substitute teacher for six years in Saline and has been a full-time teacher for the last 15 years. This year, she taught first grade at Woodland Meadows Elementary School.
The motorcade featured cars adorned with balloons and colorful signs with messages of love for Junga. Kids hung out windows and poked their heads through sunroof. They waved, said hi, and presented gifts, bouquets and cards to their teacher as they drove by.
Junga blew kisses, waved and smiled back at her students and colleagues, often fighting back tears.
"It was unbelievable. I was so surprised," Junga said. "I kept thinking, it's kind of funny that all my children are here. And then all of the sudden I walk outside, and they said, 'This is for you mom.' It was awesome."
Students and staff were eager to honor Mrs. Junga. Mary Marshall taught with Junga for 16 years. They "team-taught" second graders together for 10 years at Woodland Meadows.
"Diane comes in with a positive attitude every day. She can always find the silver lining. And she has a way of making every child believe in themselves," Marshall said. "So she's got wicked strong talent."
Once word spread about the plan to honor Mrs. Junga, the motorcade grew.
In a twist of fate, Junga's educational career has been bookended by shutdowns. She began teaching at a small Catholic school in Upper Sandusky Ohio in 1977. In the winter of 1978, a blizzard shut down the school for almost a month.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020 and school has been canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic.
"I chuckle, because I started not being in school, and I ended not being in school," Junga said.
Junga took time away from teaching to raise her children. She returned to education as a substitute teacher in Saline schools. As her children got older, she returned to the profession full time.
Like many longtime teachers, Junga always knew it was for her.
"I have never not enjoyed teaching. I wanted to be a teacher when I was a little girl," Junga said. "I used to make my brothers sit down and be my students."
Junga recalled her first day as a full-time teacher at Saline schools. She admits to being nervous. It was a bigger school system and she'd tried for a couple of years to land a full-time job while subbing.
"I was excited. But I remember walking in there and almost not being able to talk to the children. I was scared almost," Junga said. But, she steeled her self and reminded herself that she was up for the task.
Many years later, she couldn't be happier about her time in Saline Area Schools.
"I leave this job loving it. But I'm at that magic age and it was time," Junga said. "I look back with fond memories of everything I've done. And the people I've worked with and people I've worked for are all amazing. Saline is a special place to teach."
Junga plans to help more in the family business. Junga Ace Hardware is on target to open its new store on East Michigan Avenue this fall.
Junga was touched by the parade Wednesday but plans to reconnect with her pupils one more time when the social distancing orders end.
"Those children become like your children. You are with them all day long. Especially with the first graders I was teaching. They cry, they get sick, they fall, they get hurt and you are there to take care of them," Junga said. "And so, in the future, when it's safe to be together, I'm going to have a gathering, because I need that last goodbye. I need that last hug, because they're special to me - especially because they are my last class."