As Gonzalo Gonzalez takes a noisy and energetic group of kindergartners through the day’s PE lesson, he’s aware that statistically, he shouldn’t be here – not in Kansas and certainly not beginning a career as a teacher.
Gonzalez (his friends call him Gonzo) is completing his student teaching at Northeast Elementary School in Arma this semester and will graduate with a BSEd from Pittsburg State University in May. It’s not an outcome that demographers, social scientists or even Gonzalez himself would say was likely.
From the day he was born, Gonzalez has beaten the odds.
Gonzalo Gonzalez, Jr., was born in 1990 to Gonzalo and Araceli Gonzalez in Oceanside, Calif., where his parents had settled after immigrating from Mexico.
“I’m a first generation Mexican-American,” he said, smiling.
Almost immediately, however, there were problems.
“I was born with leukemia,” Gonzalez said. “For a long time, every time I was sick, it was a life-threatening situation.”
Although Gonzalez’s health improved, his odds of success still seemed long.
“My dad has a fourth-grade education,” Gonzalez said. “He drives a tractor and my mom cleans homes. Where I grew up, if you were Mexican, you weren’t going on to school.”
Gonzalez said his parents made sure the outcome was different for him and for his older brother than it was for so many other children in the neighborhood.
“My dad and my mom refused to let that happen,” Gonzalez said. “I remember one night, my dad came into the kitchen where I was doing homework. He told me two things, ‘never give up,’ and ‘you will always have a father that loves you.’”
In addition to his parents, Gonzalez found something else that would guide his life – baseball. After graduating from El Camino High School, where he was an all-league pitcher, Gonzalez played for two seasons at Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC). He then came to Pittsburg State, where he pitched two years for the Gorillas.
Daniel Esposito said he recruited Gonzalez to play for SWOCC when Gonzalez was a high school senior and he was coaching there. Esposito, now the head baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said he made a phone call to Gonzalez expecting to talk to “a roughneck type kid.”
“We are from the same hometown and high school so I knew exactly where Gonzo was coming from,” Esposito said. “I knew the neighborhood because it is known for its gang activity and everything associated with that.”
The young man Esposito spoke to that night was not what he expected.
“I was surprised to talk to a very upbeat, intelligent, respectful 18-year-old,” Esposito said. “
Gonzalez played for Esposito in Oregon and eventually followed him to Pittsburg State, where Esposito came to serve as assistant baseball coach. He completed his eligibility at PSU in 2013 and last summer had the opportunity to play professional baseball in Mexico.
“After my senior season, I thought I was done, so it was a great experience to be able to play that summer,” Gonzalez said.
Now Gonzalez is focused on completing his degree and plans to pursue a master’s degree in education.
“Probably because of my illness when I was a kid, I have always been interested in health and physical education,” Gonzalez said. “I want to teach young people why being healthy is so important.”
On this day, surrounded by kindergartners, Gonzalez is still wearing his Vikings baseball uniform because he came straight from helping coach the high school baseball team.
As she watches Gonzalez interact with the children, Judy Bache, his cooperating teacher at the school, said she sees something special in the young teacher.
“He has charisma. He’s a natural,” Bache said. “The students really love him.”
Esposito added that he has high expectations for Gonzalez as he charts his career.
“He is a high-character, blue-collar young man who has overcome more than most to succeed in life,” Esposito said. “I have been excited and happy to help him along the way. My wife, Tami, and I are extremely proud of him as he graduates with a degree this spring. Over the past five years, Gonzo has been like family and we are excited to see what the future has in store for him.”
Wherever life takes him from here, Gonzalez said he knows that without his parents and others along the way, he could be on a very different path.
“I have been blessed to have people in my life who care about me,” he said.
Below: Student teacher Gonzalo Gonzalez works with kindergartners at Northeast Elementary School in Arma.
©2014 Pittsburg State University