BY NORA C. PAPASIAN, M.D.
One of the kindest men I have ever known passed away last year, on October 26, 2013. We knew him as Baron Ananian, our math and science teacher at Ferrahian high school, where he taught for over 20 years. Born in 1927, Parsegh Ananian had a thirst for knowledge and learning that lasted throughout his lifetime and was poured into his teaching. He is remembered very fondly and with great respect by the large majority, if not entirety, of people who knew him. To say he was my favorite teacher of all time does not really encompass the impact he had on my life and my education.
Baron Ananian was one of the smartest men I have ever met, and probably the most humble. He was also exemplary in his dedication to his family and to his Armenian heritage. He should have been a university professor. He had aspired to become a physician, and he could easily have done so. He was accepted to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a feat that would have been an extremely remarkable achievement, especially as an international student. However, he was needed at home to help his mother and siblings, so he sacrificed his aspirations and stayed in Syria. Nevertheless, learning and educating were to be his life’s work.
A gifted scholar from an early age, Parsegh Ananian was drawn to the sciences. He pursued his education in every country where he lived. In Syria, he graduated from Aleppo College. In Lebanon, he attended the American University of Beirut (AUB), earning his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Physics. There he also began his teaching career, serving at Eshrefieh High School and Rowda Boy’s College. He also lectured and conducted research in the Agriculture Department at AUB. It was during this time that he met Hasmig Oflazian, who would become his loving wife and mother of their three children.
After the couple moved to the United States, Parsegh Ananian pursued graduate education, and he earned his Master of Science degree in Chemistry from California State University at Northridge (CSUN). He continued his post graduate education at UCLA, working toward his Ph.D. But when these studies were interrupted due to citizenship status, Mr. Ananian dedicated himself to teaching full time. Here he was at another crossroad: he could have continued teaching at the university level, but he chose instead to teach and inspire Armenian youths. He dedicated a large portion of his life to this cause, and as many of his students continued their education, he rejoiced with their successes. That was perhaps his greatest legacy, to inspire not only his children, but also a generation of students to pursue higher education and to excel.
Parsegh and Hasmig Ananian had the joy of raising three children, all of whom pursued higher education: Vatche in engineering, Garen in law, and Maral in financial analysis. Following in his father’s footsteps, his eldest, Vatche, now teaches Civil Engineering at CSUN. Many of us had the fortune of growing up with and having them as friends and classmates. For those of us who were classmates with them (including myself and my brother), this allowed us the opportunity to see another side of Baron Ananian. We understood how fair and caring he truly was. There was no nepotism. He treated us as if we were all his children – equally fair and strict as on his own three.
Like most great teachers, Baron Ananian taught not only through his lectures but by example. He was often found in his office reading, his interests ranging from science to literature, economics, politics, and Armenian literature (especially Hagop Baronian). But it was clear that he loved mathematics and science the best. He loved to understand the mysteries of the world. We didn’t need to know he had done extensive research in the electrophorectic analyses of chemical stresses on biological systems to know this. It was clear in his curiosity about the world. Physics could explain most everything, and mathematics could quantify it. If Baron Ananian had said it could even explain social phenomena, I would believe him.
For those of us who were lucky enough to have him as a teacher, we knew he was exceptional. He was our “Einstein”, and indeed that became our name for him. Of course, we could not say that to his face because he was too modest (yes, we tried). When it came to the sciences, there was nothing he didn’t know. I remember an occasion where my friend and I were trying to learn about vitamin E, and we couldn’t find the answer in any of our books. We didn’t know where else to look (yes, this was before the internet). Although Mr. Ananian taught physics and mathematics, we thought maybe he could refer us to a different book. Our attitude was that we had nothing to lose by asking, but we weren’t all that hopeful. He did not refer us to a different book.
He left us speechless when, without any hesitation, he not only answered our question, but he gave us a discourse about alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E) and all of its various forms and chemical properties for not less than 15 minutes. Then he asked if this was sufficient information, or should he go on. Go on?? How could he possibly know this much about something he didn’t even teach on a daily basis? His answer was that he liked to read, the material was interesting to him. He made it seem like anyone could have this same knowledge if they just read. “You should read, read everything you can get your hands on, opportunities to learn are around you all the time” was his advice. What he was too modest to say or consider was that he was truly brilliant.
I can still hear his voice telling the class, “muhdig chen uhner!” It came from his respect of learning and teaching. Never once did he give a student the message that they could not learn math or physics, though many, if not all, of us found it quite esoteric, especially in the beginning. If we did not understand the first time he explained a topic, he would explain it a different way. If we still didn’t get it, he would encourage us take some time to think, and we would discuss it again over the following days. As long as we were willing to learn, he was willing to teach. He had a tremendous patience I don’t think I have seen in any other teacher in college, medical school or anywhere else.
One of the most memorable lectures he gave was about density and temperature variation of substances, using the example of gasoline. He was able to derive a calculation that estimated the cost of gasoline based on its properties, environmental temperatures, and the cost of gas at the time. His derivation explained why it is most economical to buy gas in the very early morning or late evening. Though the cost difference was hardly astounding, I was astounded by Baron Ananian’s ability to take a simple question from everyday life and quantify it in terms of scientific and mathematical principles. Looking back, it was likely this influence that convinced me it was possible to derive a mathematical model of the brain during my research in medical school.
He taught critical thinking long before college. In English class, we read a political article criticizing military policies, relating the use of jet fuel to environmental toxicity. The author quoted science to make his point particularly convincing, and he asserted that his conclusions could be derived from the “facts” he cited. It sparked a heated debate in class because some felt it was propagandist rather than scientific. There was only one way to resolve this. One of the students took the article to Baron Ananian, who systematically analyzed the thesis, the facts, and the calculations. His impartial study revealed, “He does not give us enough information to come to this conclusion.” For some, this was merely a class exercise, most likely forgotten minutes after class ended. For me, this memory represents the critical thinking that Baron Ananian demonstrated and encouraged us to practice in everyday life. He approached with an open mind, no pre-judgment, whether it was a school assignment, a person, or a life situation.
Periodically, he would suspend the regular lesson to give us a thought problem, something that we could solve with our knowledge base but which required us to think outside the box. We were not graded on this, nor were not required to participate. It was purely for enrichment. To some, it seemed like just another math problem. We could have spent the whole period chatting with friends. But what was there to gain from not trying? For those of us who engaged and took up these problems, we had a chance to challenge our minds, and I found those challenges to be the most rewarding. I learned that given a challenge, I’d rather try. That was probably one of the most important lesson I ever learned in high school.
I wish I had told him some of these things, but I hadn’t really reflected on them until after he passed away. Here he is, still teaching me, even after he’s gone.
We were so lucky to have him. Though his light has gone, Baron Ananian will still live in the hearts of those who remember and honor him.