BY SHAHÉ MANKERIAN
“Despite the geologists’ knowledge and craft, / mocking magnets, graphs, and maps— / in a split second the dream / piles before us mountains as stony / as real life.” — Wisława Szymborska
Twenty-five years ago, when I told Mother, I’ve decided to become a teacher, she looked bewildered. “You should reconsider and become a doctor,” she said. At 25, my major and passion in the education of English Literature provided me with one option, but physicianship wasn’t one of them. Right out of college, I couldn’t wait to spark the interest of grade school students with the tranquility of The Little Prince, the wily stories of Roald Dahl, and the poetry of Shel Silverstein. I bounced over the moon when I slipped a Saroyan, Satre, or Szymborska into their YA reading list.
“You’re a smart boy. You should become a doctor,” she said. My mother’s comment sounded delusional for one reason: I couldn’t remember being present in any of my science classes after elementary school. I mean, I occupied space physically like a lab specimen, but mentally, I took flight to Barrie’s Never-Never Land. To avoid conflict, my 9th grade Biology teacher made me the laboratory reporter and encouraged me to record all the “occurrences” in the classroom. Howard Gardner would’ve been proud of Mrs. Saccoman, the unconventional Biology teacher. She tapped into my verbal-linguistic intelligence, and for once, I paid attention.
Yet, my ephemeral encounter with science education, just like the 80s, evaporated into the ether of ennui. I gravitated toward the presidential parodies on Saturday Night Live and laughed at the actor-turned-president who mixed voodoo economics with “Star Wars” initiatives. My immigrant parents, meanwhile, waited for the morsels to trickle down from the rich into their vacant plates. This smart boy who didn’t become a doctor had to work at his uncle’s gas station so that he could raise enough money to pay for the prom. Science never sashayed into our household because we constantly struggled to stay financially afloat.
“I cannot become a doctor,” I said because I had a father who pushed Balzac and Mendelssohn on his children like a dealer pushes Prozac and Methamphetamines on addicts in Adidas tracksuits. I had a mother who grounded her fantastical stories in coffee cups full of residue as women with bouffant hairdos and stale perfumes oohed and aahed around her. I wish we had microscopes as bookends, or the periodic table framed over the dining table. Instead, we had a marble bust of Beethoven and the velvety silhouette of Sayat Nova staring down at us, the immigrant misfits of Pasadena.
I stayed true to my calling and became a teacher. Then, in 2005, I accepted the principalship position at Hovsepian School in Pasadena. At the helm, I wrestled with the complex marriage of the Sciences and the Arts. Like Sirens, the Arts seemed seductive, alluring. From the belly, children had heard the melodic hums of their mothers, dabbed into paint as toddlers, recited nursery rhymes in backseats of SUVs, and danced to distant rhythm of the Pacific like true Californians. What did the Sciences have? If lucky, a hanging skeleton in the lab doubled as the metaphor of the department.
Underneath the weight of dilapidated textbooks, science teachers felt disheartened and disconnected from the 21st century demands. The global Tech Boom of the 90s brewed the perfect storm for future science-technology teachers to jump ship. The nightly news heralded incessantly: U.S. markets lacked qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Thus, the inevitable shortage ensued. Reputable practitioners of the sciences disappeared from the trenches of academia and raptured into the kingdoms of Microsoft and Macintosh. Millennials migrated into marshes full of money and left the teaching of sciences to characters with the disposition of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew or Beaker from the Muppets.
The tragicomedy continued in technology classes. For example, we dedicated a single period of “computers” per week to buffer against the technological avalanche. Teachers infused the Arts into core subjects regularly but most avoided the computer like the plague. To bypass the passé Excel or PowerPoint presentations, we hired undergraduates, desperate for cash, to wow students with juvenile wizardry of coding on the elephantine desktops in the computer lab. Tech-savvy middle schoolers weren’t impressed. They sank into the quicksand of boredom. I couldn’t save them because I didn’t attempt to understand technology. Ignorance coats the brain like a cozy blanket.
In blindfolds, we struggled to pin a tail on a shapeshifting donkey. Districts played victims to crackpot contracts, purchasing and then disposing the latest trend. Like lemmings, Armenian schools followed suit—including ours—to embrace the latest gimmick. Remember the smart board craze? Schools raced to replace the old white boards with something smarter, launched multimedia rooms full of smoke and mirrors, yet failed to acknowledge the obvious: only smart teachers make smart students. A telling article in Myplanet entitled, “Smart Board, Dumb Idea,” validated our core belief, we didn’t necessarily need the latest gadgetry; we needed more Mrs. Saccomans.
By 2013, K-12 educators got a taste of the Next Generation Science Standards, which provided flexibility to design classroom-learning that simulated students’ interests. Myplanet article stated, “Children are highly tactile (especially when learning new concepts). A smart board doesn’t offer the same kind of interactivity.” We wanted our children to solve real-world challenges through project-based teaching and cross-discipline learning. This allowed students to understand the relevancy of their work within the world around them. It exercised their curiosity. For example, Shakespeare transcended disciplines when the apothecary’s potion poisoned the fate of Juliet and Romeo. See? Sciences seeped into literature.
At Hovsepian School, we realized the necessity to merge the arts with sciences, creativity with critical thinking. Students need to understand Nabokov’s infatuation with butterflies occurred before he wrote his seminal Lolita. The poet William Carlos Williams moonlighted as a physician before he ate “the plums / that were in / the icebox. / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast. / Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” I did not become a doctor, but being a teacher, principal, and a father in the 21st century feels equally sweet.
I believe Hovsepian School’s metaphorical counterpart is a set of Legos. To avoid stagnancy, education needs a solid foundation and a colorful set of building blocks. This year, our school added a new block to our ever-evolving edifice; it carried the acronym STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math). Based on research, we knew STEAM enhanced learning through hands-on, interactive, project-based, and real-world applications. It also integrated a variety of disciplines to allow students to come up with different solutions to the same problem. Most importantly, it gave students the opportunity to apply science and math to real world issues.
We established a partnership with STEM World, a wonderful laboratory-workshop space in Pasadena that had championed a true STEM-immersion through technology and hands-on equipment. Because of our partnership, we recruited the best and the brightest science and technology educators in the business. With a collaborative effort, we designed a tailored STEAM curriculum for Hovsepian students, trained our brilliant teachers, and cultivated parental support. Furthermore, we hired an independent STEAM specialist, to design a special curriculum for our preschool. We knew STEAM will nurture young minds to solve world problems that require, at least in part, both scientific and artistic solutions.
Last month, at our school’s annual Dinner with STEAM specialist, our middle school students came face-to-face with passionate scientists and engineers who advocated the mantra, “Be the change you want to see.” As students met scientists at various stations, I wanted them to envision the interconnectivity of STEAM. Guest scientist, Dr. Paul Narguizian, professor of Biology at CSULA, reassured my worries: “We are changing our tune at the collegiate level; we are telling a story which is grounded in science yet nourished through the humanities.” A 6th grader reiterated, “I saw Math, Language Arts, Sciences, and History hugging it out.”
Mother looked bewildered when I told her, I’ve decided to become a teacher. That was twenty-five years ago. Today, when my 10-year-old and I visited her at Ararat Home, she became the inquisitive grandmother. “What are you going to be when you grow up?” she asked her granddaughter. What are you going to be? That dreaded question. My daughter looked at her, then at the ceiling. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’d like to be an archeologist or an actress.” Mom nodded, smiled, and requested a kiss. In mid-embrace, my mother whispered in my daughter’s ear, “Be both. Be both.”