Interview with Principal Damonte

“They don’t judge on who you actually are. They judge on what they see.”

On April 5th of 2019, I walked into the same halls I had been familiar with for the past four years. Stepping into the main office of Grant High School, I immediately recognized the faculty and staff, who happened to remembered me as well. That’s when Principal Damonte came out of her office and greeted me with a hug and the same radiant smile she always had on her face. Principal Pamela Vicky Damonte is a 48-year-old Latina, in charge of Grant High School in Van Nuys. Damonte became principal during my junior year and truly made a difference in many student’s lives, including my own. Having a Hispanic background, she understood all of the troubles students of different cultural backgrounds had in school. Damonte made sure every student knew they were valued, and always encouraged us to reach our fullest potential, no matter what it might be. Being able to speak to the woman who helped me advance in my educational career was truly rewarding.

After doing my interview with Principal Vicky Damonte, I understood how her story related to three of the works we’ve focused on in class. The first work is “Beyond Intersectionality” by Ana Louise Keating. Damonte has faced discrimination on a daily basis due to her being Latina. The second work is “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods” by Richard Rothstein. During her time in high school, she was told she would not amount to anything because people like her never do. When she went on to get her bachelors and masters in history, people would treat her as if she was uneducated. Her most recent encounter with discrimination was when she was trying to buy a house and her real estate agent would not take her to see the house she liked because he believed it was “out of her price range”. She took these experiences and used them when working with her students. The third and final work is  “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” by Audre Lorde. This relates to Damonte as well, because she has gone her entire life trying to redefine society’s view of Latinas and those with different backgrounds.

Damonte has faced many problems during her career as a principal, yet nothing can stop her from trying her best at all times. Not only does she try to get to know all her students on a one-on-one basis, she keeps in contact with recent graduates to see how their lives have turned out and still tries to help in any way possible. Every morning she would say, “Grant first, then college”. This message has stuck and resonated with most students of the school, and many graduates. Damonte’s main goal is to make sure students know they can do anything they want to and always shows support no matter what.

I began our interview by asking Principal Damonte about where she was born. She told me her mother was living in the United States, but wanted her children to all be born in Argentina because,

“there was something, about being very proud of being Argentinian”.

She then came to America with her mother when she was just a newborn. As a follow-up question, I asked her if she had any siblings, and immediately she became very emotional. Damonte went on to talk about her older sister who passed away from cancer a few years ago. She told me how her sister was extremely intelligent and how education is very important in their family. Damonte stated,

“because she came here when she was older, like she had to work, but then she continued to work, and then she started going to school, but older. And then I went to college, and she really wanted to graduate. So even when she was really, really sick, like a few months before she passed away, she graduated from college”.

From that moment, I knew her older sister had a major influence on her life. I continued to ask her if she had any other role models besides her sister and mother. Damonte replied with,

“I didn’t have one, and how unfortunate right like to go through, just at like my last couple of years of college, there was a professor at a CSUN. Her name was Martha Sanchez, I think. She was like one of the department heads for Chicano Studies, and I remember looking at her and I was like, she looks like me. She’s so smart, and to see her always doing things for her students, but that was not until later on in life.”

However, when it came to her education in high school she stated she didn’t have anyone. Damonte continued by saying,

“There was nobody here. For a long time, I kind of navigated things on my own. I didn’t really have anybody. Even the teachers that were here when I was here, I can’t even name you one person that I thought made a difference in my life”.

This experience has affected the way she treats every student in her school. When I was one of her students, I remember how much she would do for each one of us. Before Principal Damonte, we had another principal who really did not connect with, or in my opinion, truly care for the students, with most being immigrant or first generation. Damonte knew the struggles the students would go through because she herself has faced them. When I brought this up to her she stated,

“You know there’s some, and I don’t know how kosher this is, but Anglos, you know born-Americans, who are very thoughtful of immigrants. But I don’t think you really, really comprehend the struggles that first generation kids go through unless you go through them yourself. Do you know how hard it is to fill out a financial aid application? Or a college form? I had no idea. Or things like that that your parents can’t help you with, because first of all, they don’t even know the language that well, and second of all, they don’t know the educational system well. So for me, that should of taken me four years to go to college, or five years to go to college, it took me like six, because I took classes that I didn’t need, and then I was so behind, that I didn’t go straight into English 101. I had to take like English whatever it was, 151, and then 101. So like I try for you guys to make your experience just a little bit easier than it was for me.”

I could feel how much she cared and tried to help us as students, and till this day she keeps in contact with most of the graduates and offers to help in any way she can.

I wanted to know what she hopes to accomplish for the school, and her response was a heartwarming one. She stated,

“It’s just simple, that kids have a better experience than I had, and that I prepare them to be successful later on. It’s not just high school, this is just the beginning. It’s tough and it’s harder now. The economy’s harder, politics, right now going into a good college is so much harder. And that you, so prepared but that you also, the time that you’re here that you enjoy school. If you enjoy school, it’s so much easier than if you hate it”.

I then asked her what changes she has made to the school and why they are important to her. Her response truly astounded me, she began by saying,

“You know when I came here, Grant had just gotten off of, it was, so there was, there’s a bunch of little districts, right, like northeast, northwest, whatever. Grant was actually in ISIC, it was intensive support something, because it was so bad. It wasn’t even part of a regular district”. I could not believe the high school I attended was not even considered to be a part of a regular district. Damonte elaborated by saying, “It was an intensive, they were in a special intensive support district because their scores were like the lowest, literally the lowest in the valley. And I mean, I don’t know about LA because I didn’t compare, but definitely the northeast. Northwest is like Canoga, El Camino, Taft. And northeast is Poly, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, whatever. Grant was like the lowest in both districts. And I mean, getting Grant to be the highest scoring school now out of two districts. We are number one now. From both sides, athletics continues to do well, academia continues to do well”.

Thinking back to our course authors, what Principal Damonte said connected with the same beliefs that Richard Rothstein shares in their writing “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods”. Rothstein states,

“children have few college-educated role models to emulate and have few classroom peers whose own families set higher academic standards” (Rothstein 223).

When students do not have a parent or older sibling that have attended college, they are less likely to go themselves. With Grant being a school filled with students, and the majority being immigrant or first generation, I saw this happen very often. I remember hearing the same excuses over and over again, “well no one in my family went to college, why should I”. This is a goal Principal Damonte focuses on. Her goal is to remind all of her students that college is not an option. Unlike many educators Damonte does not ask “are you going to college?” she asks, “which college are you going to go to?” She believes with little questions like these that she encourages students to further their education, and in the long run live better lives.

Continuing on with the interview, we started to speak about discrimination. I asked Damonte if she has faced any discrimination, and she stated,

“All the time. As a female, as a Latina, as a second language learner. All the time. Even today”.

I asked her to elaborate. Damonte stated,

“You don’t go around saying, I’m a principal. You know, to like the average Joe, I remember, I mean this was a few years back, but I was buying a house and then the guy said, this houses costs a lot, I mean I knew how much. You’re not gonna go to a mansion and be like, oh. But he said, you know, we don’t really have you price range here, but we do have a house that is cheaper somewhere like and so and so. I can give you the address, you know? Those are little forms of discrimination. You know that happen on a daily basis. They don’t care, yeah.  They don’t judge on who you actually are. They judge on what they see”.

In Audre Lorde’s,  “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” Lorde states that, For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as american as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection” (Lorde 1). I believe this relates to Principal Damonte for many reasons. Having been oppressed from a very young age and continues to be oppressed till this day, she has taken this oppression and learned from it. Having students from all different backgrounds, she does what she can to make sure they do not face the same discrimination she has in her life.  

I was curious to know how Grant has differed from any other school she had previously worked at, Principal Damonte answered by explaining how diverse the student population was. Damonte says,

“You know, you’re not only going to have Armenians, and you’re not only gonna have Hispanics, so like the Poly ( high school in the neighborhood) kids, they have to, when they leave high school, then they have to face the music. For you guys, it’s like, this is how it is all the time. And not only with the cultures, but with like having Special Ed kids walk around you. And being in your classes, and you know, everything”.

I compared what she said with “mixing pot of all cultures coming together”. She responded by stating,

“It is multiple types of people. And then when you leave here, like that is society”.

This connected to a belief that AnaLouise Keating shares in “Beyond Intersectionality”, she states, “We isolate ourselves from those whom we have labeled “different”. This automatic difference-based labeling process distorts our perceptions, creating arbitrary divisions and an oppositional “us-against-them” mentality that prevents us from recognizing potential commonalities” (Keating 37). Many times, I have heard of people hating one another for coming from different backgrounds. It may be due to ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or how you display yourself. One of Principal Damonte’s goals is to have her students see past that, and to get to know each other no matter what differences they have. With spending time with people who are unlike us, we get to learn and understand how we should treat others and learn mutual respect for one another.

At the end of our interview I asked Principal Damonte one final question. I wanted to know if she could go back to her adolescent self any advice what would you say. With tears forming in her eyes she said,

“I would say, that there’s a place for you”.

I thanked her for the opportunity for the interview and she wiped her tears and said “thank you for reminding me why I do this job”. Principal Damonte has made a big change in my life and the life of my peers. Her support by constantly letting us know that we can achieve everything we wish for. Her daily saying that I stated earlier, “Grant first, then college”. Has changed my life and many others. I can honestly say, if it was not for Principal Damonte, I would not be attending Loyola Marymount University.