Joseph Sonnier has worked at Port Barre Elementary since 1981. The older students remember him as Mr. Sonnier, the janitor. Now, he is Mr. Sonnier, the teacher.

"When I was still a custodian, they were just in kindergarten and coming up. You think that kids are not going to respect you because, ‘Oh, he was just a janitor.’ Those kids respect me more because they see what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished," he said in an interview.

Sonnier teaches math, science and social studies to two groups of third graders. Higher education has always been a lifelong dream. It took him eight years, while working full-time, to earn his bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Neither of Sonnier’s parents completed high school. His father left school in the eighth grade and his mother dropped out when she was a junior in high school, both because of family obligations. Even though his parents lacked diplomas, "they stressed the importance of education," Sonnier said. He finished fifth in his class at Leonville High School in 1979. The following fall, he enrolled at Southern University, majoring in electrical engineering.

He eventually dropped out to help with family obligations. He went on to work at several jobs before becoming a custodian at Port Barre Elementary. At home, Sonnier and his wife, Felicia, emphasized education— by their words and example. While their sons Shaun and Maurice were in high school, Felicia earned a degree in accounting from Louisiana Technical College.

After both boys had graduated from high school, Sonnier said to himself, "Well, I think it’s my turn." He enrolled at the University of Louisiana, but was able to attend most of his classes in Eunice, thanks to the 2+2 elementary education program, in which UL instructors teach courses on the LSU-Eunice campus.

He began in August 2000 as a part-time student and attended night classes, slowly earning college credits. By the spring of 2005, however, the remaining classes he needed were not offered at night.

With the approval of St. Landry Parish school officials, Sonnier began a grueling schedule that would last for the next two-and-a-half years. His workday began early each morning. Most nights, he got only two or three hours of sleep.

He faced personal challenges during this time as well. In December 2006, Sonnier’s father died of complications from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. "I was in the middle of finals, but I didn’t want to have to retake any courses. It was kind of rough, but I got through it."

Finals rolled around again the following May and Sonnier would suffer another loss. His mother died of cancer. Again, he pushed through, taking his final exams in the midst of grief. He earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average in each trying semester.

He credits his family, especially his wife, for supporting him. He’s also grateful to "great professors who stood by my side when I was going through all of this. They kept me going; they kept inspiring me."

In pursuing his education, Sonnier developed a new identity. "People looked at me not as a custodian, but as a person who’s being educated by the university. It wasn’t the idea of me being a custodian and going to college. It was that somebody, no matter how old he was, took the initiative to go back to school to make himself better, and the university supported that."

In May 2008, Sonnier graduated with a 3.85 grade point average, the sixth highest in his class. In the fall, he traded in his custodian’s coveralls for a shirt and tie and returned to Port Barre Elementary School.

He plans to pursue a master’s degree in administration and supervision to become a principal. "I believe God has a way of using people for certain things. And, I really feel that I am, I guess, a messenger that you can do anything if you set your mind to it.

"It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish."

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