Group photo of honorees – Armenian language teachers of Glendale Unified School District

Well-deserved Appreciation for Armenian Teachers

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PASADENA, Calif. — I cannot think of anything more challenging than teaching Armenian language and culture to students in a non-Armenian public school setting. Nonetheless, that is precisely what the twenty-five honorees attending the Armenian Teachers’ Appreciation Night at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena, on December 11, have committed themselves to doing. These women (all women, alas!) teach in the Glendale Unified School District in a program that makes the teaching of Armenian language to elementary school students part of the school curriculum.

Nayiri Nahabedian, president of Glendale Unified School District’s Board of Education

Recognizing that a culture cannot be preserved and passed on to future generations without fluency in its language, Glendale Unified Board of Education President Nayiri Nahabedian, who was present at the event, established the program in the 2009-10 school year, with the full support of the administration. Nahabedian advocated changing the existing Armenian Heritage program, started in 2006-07, to the Armenian Dual Language Immersion program, where students “learn to speak, read, and write in Armenian through content, not as a separate course of study.” All subjects are taught in both English and Armenian.

Zvartnots Cultural Committee members: from left, Avedis Markarian, Dr. Harout Yaghsezian, Lena Simonian, Dr. Simon Simonian, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Rev. Fr. Yeremia Abgaryan, Vahe Skenderian, Alice Skenderian, Meline Agagianian, Sonya Babayan, Ara Babayan

The evening was organized by the Zvartnotz Cultural Committee of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of its founding. While it aimed to honor all teachers of Armenian language and culture, the event was dedicated to the diasporan poet and educator Vahe-Vahian, in recognition of his legacy, and in hopes of guiding future educators with his example.

Dr. Simon Simonian, Zvartnots Committee chair

After committee chair Dr. Simon Simonian’s welcoming remarks, Dr. Minas Kojayan took the podium to introduce Vahe-Vahian the poet. Learning that the poet’s pen name (his birth name is Sarkis Abdalian) was the name of a temple built by a pagan cleric in our pre-Christian era to store the treasures and the knowledge available at the time was illuminating. The poet’s adopted name reaffirmed for me the true Armenian spirit, that reaches back into our prehistory, of a poet who is revered in both the homeland and the diaspora for, to borrow his words, the “flight of the mind” and “visionary dreams” (a golden bridge).

Minas Kojayan, PhD, lecture participant

Dr. Kojayan spoke about the significance of Vahe-Vahian’s various poetry collections. He cited Monument to My Dearest Vahram, 29 poems that describe the poet’s shock and grief at losing his son in a tragic accident, “too early, too soon,” as evidence of his endurance and indomitable will to go on. “There is no lament here,” averred Kojayan. A poet who, at the age of six, had witnessed over a million of his people, “uprooted and weeping along with him,” perish in the Death March during the1915 deportations and massacres, firmly believes that his people will come out of a past of “darkness and ashes” into a future of light.

The sun is ever present in Vahe-Vahian’s poems. To “always soar upwards” and reach for the sunny peaks of the mountains of Arakadz and of Ararat is his guiding belief. Indeed, fighting with a purpose, coming together in peace, and surviving, are the keystones of his creed. “The world needs relief from pain,” he writes in Monument to My Dearest Vahram.

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Kojayan also emphasized the importance of the poet’s translations, singling out his 1984 rendering in Western Armenian of Kahlil Gibran’s celebrated classic, The Prophet, which has  recently been reissued in an eagerly awaited second edition.

Dr. Guiragos Minassian, lecture participant

Dr. Guiragos Minassian focused on Vahe-Vahian the educator, whose student he had been in Beirut, Lebanon, at both the Armenian General Benevolent Union Hovaguimian Manougian Secondary School for Boys and the Yervant Hussisian Institute for Armenian Studies. The Institute, he noted, has greatly contributed to the preservation of our heritage, by inspiring generations of students to pursue degrees and careers in Armenian Studies. Minassian evoked Vahe-Vahian’s “angelic appearance,” taking me back to my soft-spoken, quietly powerful, Armenian literature teacher, who would walk into our classroom at the AGBU Tarouhy Hagopian Secondary School for Girls with “silent steps,” and ask the class to “Please be seated.” Vahe-Vahian was, at all times, a distinguished presence.

Minassian presented Vahe-Vahian as an educator who has played a key role in the struggle for the preservation of our culture in the diaspora by instilling in his students the spirit of Armenianness they will need to support his mission.  The many students who carry on his work to this day evidence that the educator has been successful in accomplishing his goal.  The honorees of the night, described as “soldiers armed with the 38 letters of the Armenian alphabet,” are proof that the struggle goes on.

Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of America

Most heartening was watching Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Diocese, hand out the certificates of appreciation to the honorees, happily posing for a photograph with each one of them. The Prelate expressed his gratitude for their work, indicating that they, and not the chairs of the Armenian Studies programs who never visit the teachers’ classrooms, are our real heroes.

His Eminence was able to reach out to the teachers, lined up in front, who looked visibly happy, smiling and nodding to his encouraging words. I have no doubt they will go back to their classrooms with renewed energy, and help keep their language and their ancestral traditions and beliefs alive. Knowing that what they do is worthy of the highest praise gives the awardees a strength nobody can take away from them.

Finally, it was a delight to see the board president take the podium and address the audience in Armenian. With carefully chosen words, Nahabedian reiterated the importance of what the night’s honorees had dedicated themselves to accomplishing.

Ruben Harutyunyan and Edgar Ekshian did much to enhance the atmosphere and keep the Armenian spirit alive with their performances on the duduk and the piano respectively.

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