By Tom Vartabedian
Merrimack Valley, Mass.—Better late than never.
Six high schools throughout this region north of Boston received a heavy dose of Armenian Genocide education this spring in conjunction with a curriculum proposed by the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Education in 1998.
Members of the newly-formed Merrimack Valley Genocide Education Committee have covered the area, offering classes, presentations and panel discussions on the subject, looking to get a formal curriculum established.
Schools that have welcomed the talks include: Haverhill, Westford Academy, Lowell, Chelmsford, Bedford and Wilmington. Others are also being approached during the next school year in an effort to reach every community. North Andover and Tewksbury also reciprocated last year. The area boasts some two dozen high schools.
The 1998 law allows for the development of a curriculum framework to teach the genocide alongside the Irish Potato Famine, Jewish Holocaust, African Slave Passage and other crimes against humanity.
The organization Facing History and Ourselves based in Brookline developed a curriculum in conjunction with various genocide experts which has proved a valuable resource to educators involved.
Founded in 1976, it is an international educational and professional development non-profit organization which interacts with students of diverse backgrounds to promote a more open-minded and informed society.
Three years ago, a small group of Armenian community activists formed the Merrimack Valley committee whose mission it was to prevent future crimes against humanity through education. Members have worked with local school districts to help teach students about the Armenian genocide and the effects it had upon survivors, the community and rest of the world.
“By studying the historical development of genocides, it will help students make the connection between history and the moral choices they may deal with in their own lives,” said Dro Kanayan, committee chairman. “We have the full support from state officials, university professors and all facets of community life, including the churches.”
During this time, members have appeared before individual and combined classrooms with lectures first, followed by panel discussions in subsequent visits. The panels have included a genocide scholar, along with survivors of the Jewish Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda.
“These sessions have had an immediate impact upon the students since many of them have experienced genocide in their own communities,” added Kanayan. “More saddening is the fact that many of the students had never heard of the Armenian Genocide and had an awakening to this horrific event and the long-term effects it has upon society.”
In conjunction with the presentations, classrooms were invited to take a pro-active stand against genocide through collective action, beginning with a halt to bullying and other forms of peer abuse in their schools, including ethnic diversity.
Students at Wilmington were so moved by the subject, they initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Postmaster General for a commemorative stamp in memory of the Armenian Genocide.
“The world would be a better place if we all learned to live in harmony,” said a student named Marting. “The Armenian Genocide was an event in history that should set a precedent among other troubled nations. It’s important for students like us to raise awareness and maybe someday get Turkey to repay the Armenians for the crimes they committed. An admission of guilt would be a step in the right direction.”
Another student named Nira equated the genocide with similar turmoil in her native India.
“The cultural and religious ties with Armenia intensified the feelings I have for my own Indian culture,” she said. “Although I was born and raised in India, I, too, am struggling to keep my identity intact as I assimilate into the American mainstream. The Armenian Genocide must not go unpunished and coincides with the problems that face our society today.”
At Chelmsford, Holocaust education attracts a number of students. Instructors at that school also incorporate other genocides, including Armenians, but only in a superficial nature. The fact that outsiders were willing to come into their school and donate their services boded well with the staff.
Former Principal George Simonian was instrumental in setting up that contact. At Lowell, 12-year world history instructor Lisa Menasian laid out the groundwork at that school and got other Armenian teachers involved.
At Bedford, two full days of classes evolved with only a break for lunch. Armenian educators stood up to the challenge and walked away with a feeling of accomplishment. In several cases, the school principal will observe and offer thanks.
When word of the school visits hit the media, other speaking invitations cropped up from service clubs in the cities. A presentation to the Haverhill Rotary Club on Armenian Genocide conjured up several questions from the audience which offered its support.