Elementary school principal Gabe Sonnier just has to be smiling all the time. He cannot frown even if he tries to.

Port Barre Elementary in Port Barre, Louisiana, can boast about the fact that their school has to be one of the happiest places on earth, and it is all thanks to one man.


“The smile just wants to break out,” the principal told CBS News. “That’s just me. That’s just me, Mr. Hartman, that’s just me.”

That natural smile of his has been on his face since he started working in the same school thirty years ago. But it’s not the usual teacher who climbed the ranks kind of story.

Down the hall is where his first office can be found.

“This was my office right here,” Sonnier says as he opens the door to a small closet.

“This is a mop room,” he confirms.

Mr. Sonnier’s amazing journey began in 1985. He was a janitor when the principal at that time, Westley Jones, pulled him to the side.

“He said, ‘Being a janitor is a good job and it’s an honest living,’” Sonnier shared with PEOPLE. “But I taught you unlimited potential. I think you’d benefit the students better as an educator. I’d rather see you grading papers than picking them up.’”

What a great man.

Up until that day, Sonnier was used to being who he was. A janitor. No one really believed in him, except principal Jones.

Joseph “Gabe” Sonnier took the principal’s advice. When he turned 39, he went back to school while juggling a full-time job.

The school custodian took the principal’s advice to heart.

It was anything but easy though.

Sonnier would arrive at Port Barre Elementary at 5 a.m. Then he would work up until 7 a.m. He attended classes at Louisiana State University Eunice and the University of Louisiana.

He was back at work after his night classes.

“I’d finish there and then go home and do homework,” he says. “It was hardly much rest.”


Now pay attention, kids.

Sonnier graduated in 2006 with an associate’s degree in general studies from Louisiana State University Eunice. And in 2008, a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Louisiana.

A master’s degree soon followed for Sonnier.

In November of 2014, Sonnier became principal of the school he once cleaned.

All that amidst personal struggles.

Because of Sonnier’s drive and motivation to succeed, other teachers began to follow his example. Five other employees began pursuing degrees, with Sonnier giving them advice.

He stays true to his roots, still choosing to clean his own office.

“Don’t let your situation that you’re in now define what you’re going to become later,” Principal Sonnier told CBS. “I always tell them it’s not where you start, it’s how you finish.”

Words we should all take to heart.

Cajun country has the most contagious smile, and he smiles for good reason. Sonnier has come this far with his sweat and tears. He wanted it, he worked for it, and he got it.

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