Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, Monte LaMonte didn’t place a high value on getting an education. His mother was a hard-working factory assembly line member, while his father initially spent years as a drug dealer and mostly unemployed before spending his final years working at a car wash and as a janitor.
LaMonte, 46, constantly got into trouble, finally getting expelled from high school for poor attendance and then exiting a local college’s adult education program years later after having his life threatened by a fellow student. But when he and his wife Anne moved to Pasadena several years ago and found a home near Pasadena City College, LaMonte started thinking about setting his life on a more productive course. He enrolled in PCC’s adult high school classes last August.
That decision, combined with Anne’s encouragement, inspired a passionate love of learning that has led him to graduate and finally receive his high school diploma Friday night during a ceremony at PCC. And he’s not stopping there, since he won two academic awards in science and social studies as well as a $1,000 Dean’s Scholarship that will cover most of his tuition for his first year of college there. He even plans to transfer to Cal State LA and earn the English degree he needs to fulfill his new dream of giving back by returning to PCC’s adult high school program at its Community Education Center as a teacher for others.
“I was actually just going for the GED, but when I met with a counselor named Brian Pangan at PCC and he asked if I’d rather have a diploma or a GED, naturally I said, ‘Diploma.’ I was told if I worked full time at it through fall, winter and spring I could earn it in under a year, so I dove into it and have been amazed at how much I’ve come to love consuming information.”
LaMonte has been impressed with the workload required by the program, as he took classes from 8 a.m. to noon Mondays through Thursdays. He was a straight-A student in his sociology, foundational math, biology and grammar courses this past semester, and has been invited to interview for a tutoring position on Friday prior to the graduation ceremony.
The Chicago native breaks the stereotype many in society seem to harbor against high school dropouts, as he has managed to succeed on several creative fronts despite his lack of formal education. He hit a hot streak for several years as a character actor, and has quickly become a popular fixture on LA’s comedy and storytelling scenes as the creator of several popular comedic storytelling and multimedia shows.
“I produce two shows, one of which is ‘Shoot ‘Em Up: Evolution of Story from Story to Script to Film,’” says LaMonte. “An earlier version ran in Chicago for a year, and here I was exceptionally fortunate to get Gary Buchler to be my producer’ who produces the live Moth [storytelling] events in Los Angeles. I pitched him the idea, he loved it and we’ve been doing it for two years, with him taking it to the next level with writers including Annabelle Gurwitch and people from ‘Rick & Morty’ and ‘Real Househusbands of Beverly Hills’ as writers for it.
“The show explores the evolution of a story, to a script, to a film and takes place over three events during a three-month period,” adds LaMonte. “It starts out with a night of storytelling, where six storytellers tell true stories from their lives. Those stories are randomly given to screenwriters, who have a month to create a screenplay inspired by the story they were assigned. We come back a month later and actors perform the screenplays radio-play style. The screenplays are then randomly given to filmmakers who have a month to shoot a short inspired by the screenplay they are given. For one last time we come together again and screen the shorts inspired by the screenplays and stories.”
“Shoot ‘Em Up” has two incarnations now, as it joins the schedule of the hotly anticipated new comedy showplace Dynasty Typewriter in Koreatown on July 31 for the story round, Aug. 28 for the script-read round and Sept. 25 for the film screenings. A second edition of the show, teaming with the Alliance of Women Directors, will be held at the Silver Lake hotspot El Cid on July 26, Aug. 23 and Sept. 27.
“My other show is ‘All the Feels,’ which is held on the second Tuesday of every month in an AA meeting room at the back of Café Tropical in Silver Lake,” adds LaMonte. “Each storyteller gets assigned their own individual emotion to share at the show. No pressure to be anything other than honest, just make us cry or laugh. Just tell us a good story with a nice beginning, middle and end. Laugh, cry or stare at each other at the end; it doesn’t matter. I don’t think you should have pressure to be funny or anything but honest when doing a story.”
LaMonte’s love of the story carries over into his newly developed voracious reading habits, which recently included his alternating between reading both a 600-page and a 300-page book at the same time over a three-week period. He notes that his wife Anne has commented on the fact that “my synapses start to fire quicker and I noticed the more I walked the more I craved information and I couldn’t read enough. When I put my mind to it, I want to learn and I love it.”
“I think that it’s really interesting, because he started school around the time I went back to school to get my master’s degree and we were able to study together,” says Anne LaMonte, a corporate project manager who met Monte at a Chicago comedy show in 2006. “He got into science and biology and I’m getting a master’s in biomimicry, so I’m also into biology and mechanisms and how they can be put toward innovation.
“Going from a family unit where school wasn’t part of our lives to where it’s a huge part of our lives affects how we schedule our time, and our walks now aren’t just a walk but a science walk, looking at the biology of how things grow in a garden,” she adds. “It’s changed the way we have discussions. Going back to school as an adult is also a stronger matter of choice since you do it because you want to do it versus when someone just expects you to, and living near PCC makes it feel like we’re living in a college town.”
Monte regards his grammar teacher Liliana Martinez-Kaufman as his favorite instructor, noting “I fell in love with the rules once I learned them. When you see how it works, you speak more properly and words flow better. I love the checks and balances.” For her part, Martinez is “thrilled to hear that Monte is planning to get into teaching.”
“I’ve worked in adult education for almost 20 years and it’s students like Monte whose enthusiasm for learning fills the room, that keep me motivated to do my best in the classroom,” says Martinez-Kaufman. “Anyone who knows Monte knows that he is not one to stay quiet. He’s constantly advocating on behalf of his fellow classmates in student club meetings and before faculty and administrators. His gregarious nature to do better not only for himself, but to bring others along, is what makes him a great person and will help make him a great educator.”
The Pasadena City College Continuing Center Education ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. Friday at Robinson Stadium, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is free.