Janitor to Principal: Dream Deferred, Not Denied

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PORT BARRE, La.-- Many Louisiana schools and students are about to celebrate completing another grade level, but at Port Barre Elementary School, the biggest promotion is in the principal's office.

Joseph Sonnier assumed the role of principal in November, but he's been a fixture at the school for more than 30 years. For 27 of those years, Sonnier's office was the janitor's closet.

"I was used to it," Sonnier told CBN News when he recently sat down to share the story of his professional rise at Port Barre.  

"I'm going to tell you why. My daddy did it all his life," he began to explain.

A Dream Deferred

The promotion from custodian to principal is the "dream job" Sonnier never felt he could really dream about.

After high school, a college degree simply seemed out of reach.

"My mother and father at the time had separated. We were five siblings and my mother was a housekeeper," Sonnier said, reflecting on that period of his life in the late 1970s.

"And she could not afford to have me in college and have my brothers and sisters in grade school," he said. "So, I had to drop out of college to go into the work force."

You're Better than This

It just so happened that the man who taught Joseph in fourth grade, Westley Jones, was principal at Port Barre. Jones hired Sonnier as the school's janitor.

But Jones also encouraged Sonnier to do more. 

In 1985, when Sonnier enrolled his youngest son in kindergarten at Port Barre Elementary, Jones called Sonnier into his office for a conversation he would never forget.

Jones said to him "I feel you could do better. I know your potential. I taught you and I know how good of a student you were."

"I'd rather be seeing you grading papers than picking them up," he continued.

A Seed Planted

With those words, Sonnier said  "a seed was planted" in his mind and heart.

However, the seed stayed hidden for about 15 years until he enrolled in college with his youngest son.

And for eight years, Sonnier cleaned classrooms full-time, took classes part time, and studied whenever he could to earn his degree.

"At times, I was operating on maybe three or four hours of sleep a night," he said, recalling those years.

He never once thought of quitting.

"When you are determined and you persevere, and you step out on faith, you are going to get it done," he said.

Joseph Sonnier did more than just get the job done. After graduation, he taught third grade for three years and fourth grade for two years, while working on his master's degree.

He was beginning his third year of teaching fourth grade when the local school board named him principal in November 2013.

Six months later, he's still pinching himself.

A Dream Fulfilled

"I sat back in my desk in December when we were on Christmas break. And I look through -- I have my blinds open and all I could say was, 'Thank you God, thank you God,' over and over until tears started coming down my eyes because I was grateful," Sonnier told CBN News.

"And I do get a little emotional because it means a lot to me that God had this planned for me and 33 years ago I didn't think I'd be doing this," he explained.

Sonnier say his biggest support came from his wife and two sons. His family is beyond proud to see him succeed.

"During my years as a janitor, my family was never embarrassed," Sonnier said. "They stood by my side. They knew I had the potential to do some good things."

Not Giving Up

Looking back, Sonnier said Port Barre Elementary School's previous three principals also prepared him by sharing unforgettable lessons.

Lessons like "It's not where you start, it's how you finish," he said.

"But you have to step out on faith because people have dreams, but they give up on their dreams because they have so many obstacles," he added.

"You are going to face obstacles because nothing in life comes easy or nothing good comes easy, should I say," he added.

Sonnier is now busy sharing that wisdom with those around him in his busy schedule. 

"Saturday, I do prison ministry in Saturday morning at the parish jail," he said, detailing his full schedule. "I did religion education at my church."

"I officiate high school basketball and college basketball. Twenty-two years I have been doing that," he continued.

Big Heart, Forever Smile

In all that business, some old habits are hard to break. Principal Sonnier still cleans his own office.

Sonnier tells his janitors, "I will take care of this myself. I did my classroom, I can do my office. I am not above that."

Joseph Sonnier is a humble hometown hero with a heart as big his permanent smile. Yet he takes no credit for his accomplishments.

Sonnier said he lives by the words he often reads in Proverbs 16:9.

"People make up in their minds what they want to do," he said, "But it is God who decides what they will do."

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.