This year the annual hantes at Kirikian Armenian School was like none other. Not only did it mark the school’s end-of-the-year cultural program, but it was also a time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the school and to pay tribute to its historic past.
As alumni, parents, and teachers gathered on Sunday afternoon, June 13 at St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly, N.J., they were greeted by over 100 Armenian school students who entered Saddler Hall to the patriotic song, “Garmeer, Gabooyd, Dziranakooyn.” The students, from nursery to the seventh grade, took their places on the stage, which was flanked by two large banners of every Armenian school graduate’s favorite characters, Ara and Maral.
The afternoon also paid homage to long-time Armenian educator Sylva Der Stepanian, the brainchild of the Armenian school curriculum now widely used in Armenian schools around the world, which in the 1970’s introduced the popular Ara and Maral characters. Serving as the first principal of Kirikian Armenian School, Der Stepanian’s efforts and dedication laid a strong foundation for educating generations of Armenian Americans over the next five decades.
Siblings Shahe and Katia Jebejian, emulating Ara and Maral in dress and character, welcomed everyone to the program to much fanfare, promising an afternoon of song and dance and many other Armenian cultural elements.
In her welcoming address, Ani Capan, the principal of the school for the past 25 years, said it was a memorable day for the Kirikian Armenian School community. She noted the most recent successes of the school, with its record-high enrollment of 130 students, and vowed to “double this number” in the future. She credited the teaching staff’s hard work in providing quality Armenian instruction to the students week after week.
Commending Capan and the teaching staff for their dedicated service to the school, Very Rev. Fr. Papken Dz. V. Anoushian, the pastor of St. Thomas Armenian Church, said, “They are all deserving of our applause and our respect, because they have given respect and love to our church and to our school.”
“Before they leave Kirikian, our students have to be proud of the Armenian Church, language, culture, history, and of our mother Armenia,” he said.
A testament to Fr. Anoushian’s words was the 50th anniversary reunion committee, which had diligently been preparing for this milestone since last year. Sarkis Jebejian, the chairman of the committee, said the members were proud to contribute to the memorable occasion.
“We realized that we had very important memories of our childhood here,” he said. “We didn’t just learn to read and write or dance here. We learned to be good Armenians and to be good people.”
He expressed his gratitude to Capan and to all the teachers for their continued support and commitment to the school.
“I was so proud watching a committee of former students, full of enthusiasm, helping the school to organize this 50th anniversary,” Capan later said. “They made us feel young again and look to the future with renewed hope.”
Throughout the afternoon, each of the grades presented various aspects of Armenian culture, including poem recitations, dance, song, and theater. Graduation ceremonies for the kindergarten and seventh grade classes also took place. In her farewell speech, seventh grade graduate Carla Sabbagh reflected on her and her classmates’ time as students at Kirikian and the valuable lessons they learned.
Another highlight of the afternoon was a video presentation tracing the school’s history from its beginnings to the present-day, filled with footage and photographs of students and teachers from the past 50 years.
Following the hantes, the celebration continued in the adjacent atrium. Rose-filled vases adorned with Armenian letters served as centerpieces, reminding former students about their lessons of the “ayp oo pen.” A life-size cutout board of Ara and Maral was also on display, allowing the children to pose for photographs with their beloved characters.
As different generations of alumni, teachers, and students gathered together, they enjoyed conversation, Armenian food, and the cutting of the celebratory cake. Reflecting on the end of the hantes and reunion, Capan said she was grateful for the opportunity to serve the Armenian school for over 30 years both as a parent and as a principal. She also expressed her appreciation to everyone involved.
“A success of 50 years does not come to realization by itself,” said Capan. “Unity with one single goal and working hand in hand is the secret of all success.”