Roberto Leyva Jr.: The Bilingual Teacher of the Year that Rose Out of Poverty

This is the autobiography of Mr. Leyva, Cornelius’ third-grade teacher and HAABE’s Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

“Let me start by sharing a short story about a boy who was raised by his immigrant grandmother in the area of Third Ward Houston. This child was a product of a 14-year-old minority mother and a 15-year-old absent father.

You can say the rough environment and low socioeconomic status had already set him apart and laid out a future of low expectations for him. Little did he know that he would one day surpass the low expectations of his reality and become something valuable in his community. He did not know that he would one day have the honor to speak and advocate on behalf of similar children whose futures seem bleak due to their current situations.  Allow me to share with you some of the struggles and challenges I endured to get where I am today.

A large part of my success and who I am today is due to one of the strongest and most determined people that I know, my grandmother. With only a dream of ‘El Norte,’ she packed up her bags and found a way to a ‘new world’ called the United States. She was widowed and left to raise three children with no job or income. I quickly matured and understood our situation and was forced to grow up and share with her our struggles.

I remember always hustling and moving around. We did everything that your typical immigrant family would do, work any menial job and sell everything you could. I also remember growing up being called a ‘Wetback.’ Though I was not, I began to identify myself as an undocumented child and believed that I did not belong.

I was a boy who lacked structure, social skills, and positive self-esteem. We sold candies, gum, chicharrones, and cokes from our apartment. We would walk the streets looking for aluminum cans that we later sold to the nearest recycling center.

As I got older, I began to contribute financially by working nights and weekends. Most of the time I had to fight staying awake and get to school on time. I was a high school student during the day and a dishwasher by night. Why a dishwasher? Most of the men in my apartment complex were either busboys, cooks, or dishwashers. My understanding of manhood growing up was based on what I saw in my neighborhood. So, being a dishwasher was all I knew; it was part of being a man.

There was a moment when hope came knocking at my door. I was offered a ticket to get out of my circumstances. One day on my walk from school, I was approached by an Army recruiter. I was so excited, and in my mind, it was the answer to caring for my grandmother financially. I began seeing my future filled with promising adventures. In the end, I never joined after all. My family talked my grandmother into not signing the consent form.

After six months of working at TJ Maxx and as a dishwasher, I saved around $3,000. But all I thought and desired was to do something greater and more meaningful with my life. One day I got on the bus with the money in my pocket and headed to the University of Houston Downtown. I walked into the register’s office, ignorant of proper procedure, and told the registrar, ‘I want to come here.’ She responded, ‘Do you mean you want to enroll?’ After beginning the admissions process, I failed all parts of the admissions test and had to register in intermediate courses. With grit and hard work, I passed them all and began my college education months later.

While in college, I also discovered cultures that were different than mine and the benefits of unity from people from all over the world. All of a sudden, I was immersed in a world that was completely different than my own. I was no longer ignorant to the world around me.

At the beginning of my journey, I struggled passing my college classes. I had many moments where I wanted to give up and never go back to the university. It was hard, and it did not come easy. I had to work twice as hard and spend more time at the university since I had no access to a computer.

Another struggle I encountered in college was transportation. The bus rides home at night were not always fun, but surprisingly, it was then that I first experienced good Samaritan deeds. I learned that the strangers in my classes had big hearts and truly cared for others, without expecting anything in return. There were many occasions where they would find me waiting at the bus stop and offer to take me home. I was embarrassed of where I lived so I would lie and be dropped off somewhere else.

Additionally, caring for and raising three little girls while working full time at H-E-B and attending college was not an easy task. I did not plan to take on that responsibility, but my sister was unable to properly care for them and I refused to allow my nieces to suffer the way I did as a child. I became a role model so they could have someone successful to look up to.

Keeping up with homework and getting them ready for school was not how I planned to start my mornings. I was introduced to parent-teacher conferences because one of my nieces was always getting into trouble. I soon understood the importance of a stable home, strong parental support, and alliances with dedicated teachers. At the time, I was unaware that while working for a degree in psychology I was also being exposed to the needs of parents with school-aged children, which would later influence my decision to become an educator.

I became the first in my family to graduate college and earn a bachelor’s degree. I was also the first in my family to openly dedicate and devote my life to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. These accomplishments may seem insignificant to some, but they were what I needed to become the man and educator that I am today. The passion that I have for education comes from my drive to become better and to rise out of the poverty that I was born into and to inspire other young minds to want and work for the same.

There are a few educators who helped keep me on the path to success. My third-grade teacher, Mr. Moss: The first male teacher that I had and the first male role model that was not a dishwasher, busboy, or cook.  Mrs. Chambers: who made me feel talented and always pushed me to be more creative. Mrs. Tiffany George: the first principal who believed in me and gave me a job, despite having no experience. Last, but not least, my current principal, Ms. Angel Wilson, and the entire administration team that supports me as an educator and believe that I will nurture and educate each child daily.”

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