BY MARY NAJARIAN
It was a normal Friday afternoon, when my daughter, Maro Yacoubian, called me at 3:20 p.m. on October 25. “Mom, you won’t believe it,” she said. “It’s the school. AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian high scool is closing by the end of the school year.” I was in shock. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Mom, don’t question. It is true, and I have to go,” Maro responded.
I felt like someone stabbed me through my heart. The news of AGBU closing the school spread fast. Everyone was asking the same questions: How could the wealthiest, the oldest philanthropic Armenian organization with half a billion dollars in their treasury not support a small school? How could an Armenian community of 150,000 in Pasadena and Glendale not be able to support one Armenian High School?
I have heard people say, “An Armenian education is not necessary.” Those people are blind. Do the people who say this and have made this dreadful decision to close the school know why people send their children to Armenian schools? Do they know how difficult it was for their own parents and grandparents to receive an Armenian education?
We went to Armenian schools not just to learn reading and writing, but to be taught Armenian History, culture, and religion. We learned to love, respect, and be proud of our ancestors, as well as to appreciate what they went through so we could live. The poorly furnished Armenian schools of the 1920s, ‘30s, and‘40s produced the leaders of today’s Armenian community: They comprise of philanthropists, historians, priests, writers, and teachers. They are the individuals who supported and built Armenia in the 1990s when it most needed help. Closing one more school shortens our survival as Armenians in the diaspora.
In Aleppo, where I grew up, there were about 60,000 Armenians. There were seven Armenian schools in the village of Nor-Kugh, in the poorer area of Aleppo, and there were nearly that many Armenian schools in every city.
I will give you a picture what Armenian schools were like then, and how they survived.
I attended the Oosoomnasirats, an Evangelical School in Nor-Kugh.
Our parents were poor refugees, and we were the first-generation genocide survivors. Some students paid the small tuition, and a great many did not pay any, because their parents could not afford it. But it did not matter – they had a seat in the class. I was given the only seat available in the school, which was in the Preparatory class. We were 101 students, in one big room. Although the ages of the students ranged from 8 years of age to14, I was only 6-years-old at the time. Every day, new refugees would arrive from Turkey, until there finally came a point when there was not even standing room in our classroom. Our principal, Mr. Levon Levonian – who was the uncle of Mrs. Joyce Abdulian – rallied parents of the school together and, in one weekend, built a new classroom in the small school yard. The walls and the roof of our new classroom were built with metal sheets, called “teneke.”
Half of our class moved into the new classroom, which was terribly cold in the winter. During those cold days, two students would pass around a small charcoal grill with live charcoal fire and give each student a minute to warm their frozen hands each morning. When it rained, we had to run out and bring in the buckets to collect the rain water that was coming through the holes of our teneke roof.
Mr. Levonian’s policy was to try to make room for every child that wanted to attend the school, whether they could pay tuition or not. He would proudly say, “In my school, I am raising our future. They don’t pay me now, but by getting an Armenian education, our students will be paying back the Armenian generation of tomorrow.”
One reason that AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian decided to close its doors was that they needed 200 students to keep the school going, but had only 150. We all know that a number of children could not attend AGBU’s = high school located in Pasadena, because they could not afford the tuition. If AGBU had followed Mr. Levonian’s philosophy and accepted Armenian students that could pay, and simultaneously accepting those who could not pay, the school would fill the 200 seats. Perhaps AGBU should have given the community a chance to come forward and raise the money for those who couldn’t afford it.
Eighty years ago, Mr. Levon Levonian had the foresight to educate students, most of them needy like me and my two siblings, who could not afford to pay the tuition. Why couldn’t AGBU, with a half billion dollars in assets, accept the 50 students and pay their tuition and raise the enrollment to 200 students?
“Thank you, Mr. Levonian, under such destitute, and hardships, you had the foresight to build our future.”