It was Pajama Day at Bowman High School. Students, teachers and administrators all came donned in their evening sleepwear, with some wearing robes, others wearing superhero sweaters and pajama pants.
Dani Dominguez chose to wear a pink fluffy sweater, pink and grey plaid pajama pants and a sleeping mask on top of her head. She was also wearing penguin earmuffs she said she had bought the previous night to match the penguin stuffed animal she carried with her all day.
The desire to match the penguins all focalized around the stuffed animal, which she gripped tightly but caringly. When she sat down, it was not placed on the floor, or on a chair next to her, but on the table in front of her so she could grab it, look at it or hold it whenever she got nervous.
The penguin was obviously important to her, and it might be uncharacteristic of a 17-year-old to evidently care so greatly for a stuffed animal. But it all became clear, once she got a second to explain, why the penguin was her theme for the day.
“I chose the penguin the day I got out of the hospital,” said Dominguez, adding that the day she got the stuffed penguin was three months after she had tried to commit suicide.
Dominguez grew up all over the place, bouncing from home to home, family member to family member. And the amiability and genuineness she shows now is antithetical to the environments in which she grew up.
“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years and she is one of the most resilient, positive people,” said Amy Gonzalez, Dominguez’s counselor and school therapist. “When I found out her story it just cut right through me.”
From a young age, Dominguez was abused by her mom.
“There was a lot of bad things that happened,” she said while looking down at the penguin. “There was a lot of stuff going on, I got separated from my family … they didn’t listen to me and I felt lonely.”
Her mom went so far as to attempt to change her daughter’s name and abandon her, she says.
Eventually, Dominguez asked if she could go live with her biological father. However, things did not improve much there as well.
“I never lived with my dad before,” said Dominguez, adding that once she got there she quickly realized the reality she was living in. “My dad was very distant. He was all about work and when he did talk to me he would say a lot of hurtful things. He didn’t think I could graduate high school because of all the schools I was going to, or that I was stupid because of all the things my stepmom and family had said.”
Couple the trauma she had experienced growing up with her mom, with the new abuse in her new home, and Dominguez’s struggles in school were only amplified. By the time she was 17 years old, she would have attended eight different high schools.
These factors degraded her mental health, Dominguez said. And it would result in her attempting to take her own life. The incident resulted in her being taken to the mental hospital.
“I stayed in there for about three months … I was only supposed to be there for two,” Dominguez said. “They blamed it on the fact that they tried to take me out of soccer. And so that’s not what it is so I just kept my mouth shut. They thought I was crazy so they just continuously called and said, ‘Just keep going there longer.’”
“And that was hard because there were a lot of things going on in the hospital like fights, a lot of people messing with their pills, and it was just a lot of things that I saw that I didn’t like.”
After the mental hospital, Dominguez continued to bounce around hoping to find a better life and environment for her to be a kid in. She moved from home to home, school to school, never being able to ground herself, make friends or even grow close with her relatives.
At one point she found herself homeless, with only a couple dollars in her pocket, and considering taking a bus down to Los Angeles to ask an uncle if she could live with him for a while.
However, she found solace, and a home away from her many homes, at Bowman High School, her eighth and final high school.
By the time Dominguez had reached Bowman she was credit deficient. But she said the staff at Bowman was prepared to help her in a way no school had done before.
Amy Gonzalez was one of the first people Dominguez spoke with on her first day of school, and by the end of their first interaction they were hugging and crying together.
“I’ve never really opened up about myself, even to therapists, because usually I would just sit there and wait for the hours to pass,” said Dominguez. “But this school … this school really helped me a lot.”
Jose Rosales, a math teacher on the campus, is like a dad to her, she says.
“My dad didn’t even know when my birthday was, he didn’t remember. But Jose was like, ‘Hey, I saw it’s your birthday today,’ and he had bought me my favorite cereal, which is Cheerios.”
Rosales then lead a group of people to come in a circle and sing happy birthday to Dominguez.
“I didn’t really have many (class) credits, but last year I did both my sophomore and junior year in one year,” said Dominguez about the academic turnaround she had while at Bowman. She also got involved in Associated Student Body at the encouragement of one of her teachers, developing school spirit for the first time in her life, she said — hence the pajamas she was wearing.
“Like, it’s pajama day so I have to dress up,” Dominguez jokes. “I was going to wear my Batman pajamas, but I couldn’t find my cape, and you can’t wear Batman pajamas without a cape.”
And despite having to do two grades’ worth of courses in one year, Dominguez plans on graduating early in February, which she says makes her both happy about how far she’s come, and sad that’s she leaving the school she cherishes.
Her final year would be the longest she had ever spent at a single high school.
“She’s just been a leader on campus, always exudes a positive attitude and has this great smile, and, ‘We’ll work through it,’” said Principal Eran Zeevi. “There’s been a lot of ‘we’re going to crush you down’ and she just kept coming up.”
“She has captured a lot of hearts on campus and the staff endears her,” he added.
For these reasons, Zeevi nominated Dominguez for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) Every Student Succeeding award. The award honors students who overcome challenges, be those physical, emotional, or in some cases from a difficult home life.
During a luncheon held last month, which honored 70 students from the Southern California region, Dominguez — who was representing the entire William S. Hart Union High School District — was announced as the recipient for the top award. She won a cash prize along with the honor of being able to represent the entire Southern California region next fall at the ACSA Leadership Conference in San Diego. She’ll be representing the region as one of the 19 finalists for the state award in the spring.
After she had shared her story during the during the Southern California section, she said many in the crowd started to cry once they heard her story.
But when her name was read out as the winner, it was Dominguez’s turn to cry. And as she did, the other contestants came around and began to hug her.
Dominguez said she now plans on going on to College of the Canyons to attend one of the college’s trade schools and hopefully find a career in being a mechanic one day.
“She’s diligent, she’ll work hard and she’s persistent until she gets it done,” said Zeevi. “We’re just so proud of her.”