By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
At age 5, Dr. Jo Beth Gonzalez made her stage debut as a carrot. The crowd responded with laughter.
“I was hooked,” she said.
That former carrot now cultivates that same love of theater in students. She has planted the seed for several Bowling Green High School students, and now feels the thrill as their confidence blossoms on stage.
On Thursday, Gonzalez was recognized as one of Bowling Green’s inspirational educators by the Kiwanis Club. Several parents in the Kiwanis audience talked about the difference Gonzalez made in their children’s lives. One relayed how after his first time in the spotlight, her son walked off the stage and said, “I want to do this forever.”
Her students have gone on to become professional actors, playwrights and Broadway musical performers.
“Jo Beth changes brains and hearts,” said Kiwanis member Scott Regan as he introduced Gonzalez.
But that almost didn’t happen. Gonzalez had no intention of becoming a teacher. After her kindergarten debut in theater, she became one of those kids who built stages in the basement. She was playwright, director and actor – to anyone who would be her audience.
“Teaching was not on my radar,” she said.
Gonzalez wanted to be a part of theater – not a teacher. But when her efforts in theater did not go as planned, her husband Al suggested that she get her teaching certificate.
That was not what Gonzalez had envisioned for herself.
“I thought a degree in teaching would stick me in a box,” she said.
Little did she know, that box was a ticket to theater for her and for countless children she would teach.
“Teaching was hard,” but the rewards were overwhelming. She got her masters, then her doctorate, then a job opened at Bowling Green City Schools. Gonzalez guaranteed High School Principal Eric Myers that she would stay one year.
“That was 22 years ago,” she said.
Her inspiration every day as she enters Room 117 at the high school is the same – her love of theater and of the students.
“We go on artistic adventures together,” she said.
Gonzalez is also inspired by her colleagues at school and her church, Peace Lutheran Church. She also continues to write, authoring multiple books.
“I write because it helps me process challenges and unpack successes,” she said.
“Teaching is hard,” she repeated.
But the box that she feared does not exist in her classroom.
“Today I am very proud to proclaim I’m a teacher,” Gonzalez said.
Through theater, Gonzalez is able to help students learn about themselves, experiment with their beliefs, and examine difficult subjects. Gonzalez found that theater even helps students understand math and science concepts.
But theater goes beyond that. When Bowling Green High School had a rash of student suicides between 2006 and 2008, Gonzalez worked with her students to develop a play about the topic. More recently, when human trafficking became prevalent in this region, she worked with her students to produce a play about that.
Rather than putting her in a box, her teaching has taken her to Korea, London, Italy and India – sometimes with students, other times to speak or teach.
“It’s been my ticket for traveling abroad,” she said.
Her students’ successes have taken the thespians to state, national and international theater competitions.
And it’s also been a ticket for students who have found careers in the profession that was planted as a seed by Gonzalez.
“I’m thrilled to know that high school theater has opened doors for them,” she said. “My greatest hope for them is that they become the very best they can be.” Whether that’s a carrot on a stage, a teacher in a classroom, or any other profession they choose.