By MELISSA GRIFFITHS
Marti Bernardez was joking when she said they’d have to hire 20 people to take her place at Harborview Elementary School, where she has worked for most of her almost-43-year tenure with the Juneau School District, but to a degree, she really is irreplacable.
Miss Marti, as she is known by students, has made an impression on students, their families and staff for her entire career.
Empire photographer Michael Penn, when asked to photograph Miss Marti, immediately knew who she was and shared that she had taught his son at RALLY, and that his son has a box he treasures like gold filled with rocks Miss Marti had painted for him. Miss Marti had also made him a hat, which he still wears.
Meilani Schijvens was surprised to recognize Miss Marti helping her son cross the street, since Miss Marti had done the same for Schijvens 35 years before when she was in Kindergarten.
“She made quite an impression on me — and many others — when I was 5, and I was floored to find her still there when my kids went to Kindergarten.” Schijvens told the Empire.
What is it about Miss Marti?
There is a youthful exuberance to her. She’s ageless despite some gray hair that’s crept into her pigtails. And when she uses a word like “love,” you don’t doubt for a moment that she absolutely means it.
Miss Marti has worn many hats working for Harborview Elementary School, perhaps literally – she said she sometimes wears costumes, including dressing as a clown, a witch, the energizer bunny and as Princess Fiona from Shrek in her ogre form. It’s one part fun for Miss Marti and the kids, and one part a way to slow the pace of drivers in the area, “It slows them down; people drive too fast along here, and this is a scary intersection,” she said.
Originally from Hood River, Ore., she moved to Juneau with her then-husband after her youngest son was born — her then-in-laws lived in Juneau, though they moved shortly thereafter. She grew up doing a little bit of everything, with family who raised their own food and animals and fixed their own cars and equipment, even re-soled their shoes.
“I’ve worked with all grades, I’ve taught reading, math, art — lots of art, spelling, just in general whatever they needed help with,” she said, she’s worked as an instructional aide, in the office, the crosswalk for many, many years, she’s even done janitorial work, and she is closing out her time with the school district working with students at RALLY. She’s been working year-round for much of the time, lately 12 months straight with kids — “I need a break,” she said.
“I’ve loved working with the kids, and I’m going to miss all my office friends, and the kids,” Miss Marti said.
Miss Marti will still be spending time with kids in her retirement, but more with her own grandchildren. And not to worry, she said she’ll most likely be back in a volunteer role.
It’s not just the many roles she’s remembered for, but how she went above and beyond and thoughtfully and enthusiastically added to the culture of the school.
Miss Marti said her husband, who moved to Juneau from Seattle about five years ago, has commented about how she knows everyone, and everyone knows her, citing a time when they were hiking out by Boy Scout Beach and out of the trees came a voice saying, “Well hi, Marti,” from parents of a student.
“It’s funny, the kids I first started working with at Gastineau, now here, I’ve had their kids, now I’ve had some of their grandkids here, and one of them, I’ve had a great-grandson — so that’s four generations,” Miss Marti mused.
“We were out at dinner last night, to the Island Pub,” she said, “And our waiter goes, ‘You’re Marti, I remember you when I was a little kid!’”
He’s in his 30s now, Miss Marti said, and he bought her a Bailey’s coffee and told her, “I still have the dictionary you drew for me.”
Miss Marti detailed how she drew illustrations into dictionaries for the departing class of fifth graders, “It took me months,” she said, estimating she did about 80 books in her free time, which was not plentiful.
She has also painted rocks, made hats and otherwise given of herself to students over the decades she’s worked there.
In her retirement, she plans to spend a lot more time working on art.
She said she might go back to teaching strictly art, but she has a long list of other projects, including a series of children’s books she has written and started illustrating, but which she said she hasn’t touched since 1988.
She writes poetry as well, and has been published, and she wrote a play that was performed by students at the school for other students and for former Governor Tony Knowles and his wife — she has a plaque.
“I haven’t had time to do it all,” she said, “Because if I’m not at school, I’m out fishing.”
She also does quilting, including an intricate hand-sewn quilt project with one-inch squares, which she is making for a friend in Sitka.
Much of what she does seems to be focused outward, from giving little gifts to students to doing illustrations or crafts for friends.
She does beading, wood carving, leather tooling and paper art — including making her own paper.
If that weren’t enough to keep a person busy, she said they also have a garden and have done their own landscaping, there is a six-foot stump in the yard that she hopes to carve into a bear, and they built a large deck, “We’re always doing something.”
“There’s just too many things I like to do.”
Nice weekends are spent on the water with family, going out to Taku Harbor or somewhere.
It might be impossible to actually list every role she’s held or activity she’s participated in, a few more include playing softball and coaching kids, league bowling and holding some leadership positions, being part of the Parent Teacher Organization, helping to start Community Schools, getting CPR training available locally, recreational flying — honestly, it might be quicker to make a list of things Miss Marti doesn’t do. When asked, she paused. Was there anything?
“I don’t know,” she said, adding that she likes to try most anything, “We’ve done just about everything that’s worth doing at some point.”
“It’s been a lot of fun working here at school, I love the kids,” Miss Marti said, but she’s dedicated many years to others and will now have time to dedicate to herself.
As a parting gift, the students made Miss Marti a scrapbook, and she said, even with the gifts of fine art from friends (pointing to a couple prints on the wall), that scrapbook was the most treasured.
Be sure to wish Miss Marti a happy retirement and feel free to share your experiences in the comments section online.