CEHHS grad Anthony Hinojosa completes his 15-year ‘educational odyssey’

4/22/2019

A self-described “big kid,” Hinojosa was born to be an elementary school teacher. But it’s a future he had to fight for.

Anthony Hinojosa is a big fan of ancient Greek mythology and literature. One of his favorite stories is “The Odyssey,” in which the epic poet Homer tests his main character Odysseus’ resolve with a 10-year gauntlet of tragic interruptions on his way home from the Trojan War.  “You know what Odysseus means?” Hinojosa asks, when we chatted with him last week. “Man of pain,” adding that it’s a description he’s occasionally identified with himself.

Indeed, any one of a number of life circumstances could have derailed Hinojosa’s path to a moment on Sunday, when he will walk across the stage at Crisler Center as the first person in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Hinojosa’s mother died when he was 2 years old, leaving his father to raise a single-parent family of seven on a blue-collar salary. He remembers spending much of kindergarten in the hallway, after being pegged as the “hyperactive kid” his teacher didn’t want to deal with. Frequent illness caused him to miss even more elementary school over the next few years. And by fourth grade he was below grade level in pretty much every subject. “I was still a young kid, but looking back, I was already on the path to trouble,” Hinojosa said.

Then came fifth grade, the first of two turning points.

“Mrs. Richards — I’ll never forget her,” he said with a sincerity that makes the cliché not feel like one. “I hated school up to that point. I couldn't read very well. But I loved to draw, and I made my own comic books. And Mrs. Richards, who was a first-year teacher — she would read them. Actually, she’d do more than that: She’d give me detailed notes and suggest how to make the stories and drawings better. My dad was super busy and doing the best he could, and my siblings were a lot older than me and had their own lives. So she was the first person who really validated me in that way. It really lit a fire.”

He became a better reader. Then, he found some success in sports when he hit middle school. And things were going pretty OK through high school. He got a part-time job, started making his own money and had a good group of friends. But when it came time to think of life after high school, he framed the future in terms of the world he knew.

“I never thought about college,” he said. “I mean, I didn't have money for it — or the drive. No one in my family had gone to college. All I knew was work. I figured I’d get a job in a factory and work like my dad did for the rest of my life.”

Turning point number two: Hinojosa met Christina, his future wife, who pushed him to start taking classes. At 20, he enrolled at Wayne County Community College, where he began a meandering four-year journey through several majors and finally emerged with an associate degree and twice as many credits as he needed for it. Even then, he still wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do. So he took a couple years off to work, save up some money and do a little bit of soul searching before spending it. He doesn't remember exactly when it happened or the exact source, but somewhere along the line he ran across a quote that gave him a little spark:  “Be the person you needed.” And he thought back to Mrs. Richards. In 2010, he enrolled at UM-Dearborn with a dream of becoming a teacher.

Often putting his tuition on a credit card, and working his full-time job at the Lowes’ in Southgate the entire time, he managed to complete his coursework by 2016. But the epic poet writing Hinojosa's story had one final plot twist for him to conquer. Between the time he’d started his degree and the time he was ready to start student teaching, the state of Michigan had changed a key qualification requirement. Now to get a student teaching appointment, he had to pass the SAT — not the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification his program prepared him for and which he’d aced on the first try.

“Here I was 33 years old, 15 years out of high school, trying to take the college entrance exam designed for 17 year olds who have just taken calculus. That was incredibly frustrating: I had already proven I could succeed in college. But I did what I had to do. I hired tutors. I bought math programs for my computer. I would work at Lowes from 4 a.m to 4 p.m., and then spend another two hours after work teaching myself calculus and trig.”

And for nearly two years, he tried and failed to pass the SAT — the only thing left standing between him and a classroom.

Hinojosa calls this the worst two years of his life, a period in which the endlessly cheerful and energetic guy said he finally understood what his friends who’ve endured depression go through. While he continued to try to pass the SAT, he wrote letters to the governor and every state lawmaker, arguing for a change in the law. He wasn’t alone. In fact, the new requirements had caused such a problem in the student teacher pipeline that the legislature reversed course in 2018. When he got the surprise call from UM-Dearborn with news there was a student teacher position for him, he said it didn’t seem real. Appropriately enough, the gig was for fifth grade.

Hinojosa said the past semester of student teaching has been life-altering. He’s made some mistakes. Early on, he “came in a little strong,” trying to be the kids’ super-friend rather than their teacher. But he took a step back, sought advice from his classroom teacher and leaned on his training in order to course correct. Now they have to earn their “ask Mr. H. any question you want” time. There have been some big, small victories too. Like the time he saw a student who was well below grade level in math conquer a story problem on the first try and celebrate with the biggest braces-clad smile he’s ever seen. Equally good: Watching the three super-high energy and often disruptive boys in the front row learn to channel that energy into their love of math.

It likely won’t be long before Hinojosa is in front of a classroom permanently. He’s had interviews with two different districts in the past week. And this summer, the place where he did his practicum is tapping him for a gig in their summer school program. Before he starts, he’s planning to make one final stop in what he’s come to call his “educational odyssey”: a visit to Mrs. Richards’ classroom to thank her and no doubt cry a little. He recently found out, in fact, she’s teaching at the same school — still being the person someone needs for another generation of middle schoolers.

Soon, Hinojosa will have his shot to do the same.

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