Editor's note: This is another in a series of stories on retiring teachers in East Contra Costa.
OAKLEY -- "I always loved school growing up," said Nancy Huffaker. "I loved doing projects and learning new things," including Spanish while in elementary school.
"(That teacher) was all about music and art but very demanding in the academics. She inspired me to become a teacher."
For nearly 40 years, that's what Huffaker did -- taught. And 35 of those years have been in Oakley.
She began in the Woodland Joint Unified School District before moving to Gehringer Elementary, when Oakley had only two schools. She started with 36 kindergartners in a full-day program and stayed with that for 11 years, then spent two years in first grade.
When Vintage Parkway Elementary opened 22 years ago, Huffaker joined the staff, teaching first through third grades over the years. She currently teaches first grade.
Naturally, with a full and long career comes plenty of good memories.
"In my first district, I taught at a very small school (about 150 kids). Every fall, (the entire school) would ride our bikes to a nearby patch, where each child would pick out a pumpkin. We'd have lunch and ride our bikes back."
With a passion for the arts, she encouraged her young students to do musicals and community service.
"I liked tying literature to the real world; reading stories about people in need."
After reading "The Teddy Bear," her students made cookies and sold them to buy bears for the police department to give to trauma victims. With "The Lady in the Box," her young charges made snack bags for the homeless.
And after they finished "The Hat," "we did a play with another class and then donated knit hats to a homeless shelter.
"Those things stand out over the years."
For many, Huffaker is the standout.
"I really can't express what she means to me," fellow teacher Lian McCain said. "She is a wonderful, caring, giving friend and colleague.
"She was so helpful to me when I started teaching first grade. I don't think I could have done it without her support, guidance and encouragement. She has touched and influenced the lives of countless students not only here in the Vintage community but throughout Oakley.
"She truly cares about the children in her classroom and in the community as a whole. She wants every child to be successful and to have a love of school and learning."
Principal Christina Karg said Huffaker "has instilled in her students a love for learning and has brought learning alive. It is truly amazing to see Nancy teach and inspire young children. On any given day, you can walk into (her) classroom and see writing come alive through the eyes of children.
"What she can get her first graders to do in writing is simply amazing. She is a master at what she does, and her legacy will live on for many years to come."
Although she's retiring, Huffaker, 61, isn't quite giving up on teaching.
"I would love to teach early literacy to Hispanic parents, perhaps supervise student teachers at St. Mary's, and informally help new teachers to the district," she said.
She also hopes to become an East Bay Regional Park District docent, in addition to doing more reading, sewing and scrapbooking.
While her time will be filled with off-campus fun, she knows she will miss the students and their hugs.
"(And) seeing the excitement when they learn to read. I will miss seeing the teachers, my colleagues and friends every day. They have been my extended family for years."