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By Courtenay Edelhart/ The Californian
BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer
Loved ones anxious to hear about the first day of the new school year picked up Roberto Martinez and Bridget Murphy from their respective schools Monday.
Murphy, 5, had just finished her first day of kindergarten at Old River Elementary School in southwest Bakersfield. She bounded energetically to her mother's black Toyota 4Runner.
Martinez, 91, is back in school after a lifetime of working. When class was dismissed at the Bakersfield Adult School in southeast Bakersfield, Martinez shuffled behind a walker to his daughter's red Fiat, but his eyes gleamed just as brightly as his great-granddaughter's.
Most of Kern County's 47 school districts kicked off the 2013-14 school year on Monday. There were more than 167,000 youngsters heading back to class in K-8, and another 35,000 returning to school in the Kern High School District.
Martinez loves school and was anxious to get back to class after a break between summer school and the regular school year.
"He called me today at 6 o'clock in the morning to ask, 'Is it time, yet?' " said daughter Carmen Owen. "I said, 'We don't leave until 7:45.' "
Martinez dropped out of school as a child to help support the family after his father died. He hadn't even finished elementary school when he got his first job at a shoe factory. With the exception of a stint with the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II, he worked steadily until his retirement from the construction industry in the late 1970s.
Ironically, just as one family death had precipitated his leaving school, another one nudged him back in.
Martinez was retired and had recently lost his wife when he decided, at the age of 81, that going back to school would be a good way to fill his days as a widower.
"I never, never sit still and do nothing," he said. "All my life, I've been busy. I worked. I served. Always something."
Martinez had a long way to go academically, though. Friends and relatives had taught him the basics of reading, writing and math, but in some ways returning to school was like starting from scratch.
A decade later, he's still working toward a high school diploma, but though he has trouble hearing and isn't as quick or steady on his feet as he once was, he says he'll keep going to class until he can't anymore. Even giving up his driver's license a couple of years ago didn't deter him. He gets a ride from Owen every day.
"I love school," Martinez said. "It's fun."
Owen likes to joke about her "new career" as a school bus driver.
"I just have one passenger, and my bus is a Fiat," she said.
It doesn't bother Martinez that his classmates are all decades younger than he is.
"I like being around young people," he said.
And he's an inspiration to his family, which consists of three sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Bridget is one of the five, and she was so excited about her first day of kindergarten Monday that she could hardly sit still. The child skipped from a sofa to a chair and back again, a huge smile on her face as she recounted her day.
The best part, Bridget said, was when her teacher read the "Jack Be Nimble" nursery rhyme. Afterward, the class made toy candlesticks, which she proudly showed off to Martinez and her great-aunt when they came over for a visit.
"This is my candle that Jack jumped over," Bridget said.
Bridget's mother tried to maintain a brave face when dropping the older of her two daughters off at school Monday, but she couldn't stop herself from crying.
"She made a friend right away," said Lisa Murphy. "Another little girl was lost so we had her walk to class with us, and when she ran in there with her without saying goodbye I was like, 'Ooohhhh.' "
Murphy said she's proud of both her daughter and her grandfather, who she said is "definitely" a role model.
"It's never too late," she said.