On Mother’s Day, May 13, the mothers of several St. Leon Sunday School students had a lot to be proud of. Their children, a small group of 17-year-olds, were graduating from Sunday School that day in a program that took place in church after Badarak.One by one, each student approached the podium and recited a short passage from the Bible that was fitting of their Sunday School experience. The daunting task of speaking to an entire room of parishioners was apparent on the faces of many students, but the confidence they had in their knowledge and understanding of their passages reassured them.
“It was a happy and sad moment,” said Aline Tashjian, one of the graduates. “I was proud to be celebrating my graduation and finishing Sunday school but of course I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like now that it was over.”
Both Saturday and Sunday Schools are significant Armenian traditions within our communities. From the very first Armenian immigrants to America, women have been vehement about establishing these compact institutions for our youth. After the genocide, the large number of orphans had no way of being exposed to their Armenian heritage amidst all the turmoil and tragedy. Schools were created, often in the basements of churches, with the purpose of assuring that the Armenian culture wasn’t wiped out, like many of our people were. Whether these children were educated about our language, religion, culture, or a combination of these and other subjects, they had the opportunity to receive, retain, and transmit this vital cultural instruction through immersion.
We all know the drill now—waking up a few hours earlier than usual (on a weekend, no less) to be dragged unwillingly to church for a few hours, which at the time seems torturous. But as time goes on and we get caught up in the day-to-day hassles of life, we might look back and yearn for the times where we could sing, speak, and learn in Armenian for a few hours on the weekends.
Peter Oundjian, a graduate of the Khrimian Lyceum at the Diocese, recalls his days at Saturday School quite fondly now. “There are always some mixed feelings when it comes to Saturday School,” he explained. “I sometimes felt that it wasn’t necessary that I be there because at the time I felt like I knew all there was to know. But now that I look back, I realize what Khrimian taught me.” Oftentimes, students glaze over their lessons, assuming that there’s not much more they can learn. But once they graduate and part from these institutions, they come to realize that one of the most important factors of these schools is the cultural immersion they provide. Simply being in a community where everyone is connected by the same factor–being Armenian–can have a wonderful effect on interactions. “There’s something that unifies us and makes us feel connected to our heritage,” said Oundjian.
Apart from the community-building aspect, these types of Armenian education institutions are vital in keeping our culture alive. “One day I was thinking about what makes Armenian school so special, and it just hit me,” explained Alek Gulbenkian, a graduate of Kirikian Saturday School at St. Thomas Church in Tenafly, N.J. “If I only get a limited amount of Armenian influence at home from whatever my parents can show me, and I spend most of my time at school where there’s nothing remotely close to Armenian, where else am I supposed to learn anything about my heritage?” Gulbenkian makes an obvious, but certainly not irrelevant point. We can only observe so much from our families about what defines our identity as Armenians. Yes, Mom might have taught us how to speak Armenian, Dad, how to play tavloo, and Grandma, how to make sarma, but how else would we be able to expose ourselves to our culture in an academic setting? “As a kid, I always asked when I would ever really need to know what year the alphabet was created or who fought in which battle. But now, as I’m getting older, I can easily put that knowledge into context with other things that I’m learning, and my understanding of all of those lessons becomes greater,” Gulbenkian said.
An interesting result of having been a student at an Armenian Sunday or Saturday School is perspective, and it is often not very obvious. Yes, we attend these schools to learn about religion or how to read, but we also gain the ability to be more open-minded, lifelong learners. “When I started college and began meeting new people from all over the country, I was surprised how often my knowledge of anything Armenian entered the conversation,” said Oundjian. “All of the history associated with Armenians gives me another perspective on a lot of different things.” Having that extra facet of knowledge, whether it’s about the origins of the Armenian Church, or about when Armenia gained independence, can have an impact on the way you understand and relate to other people and new ideas. Even when on Jeopardy, a question about Armenia stumps the contestants, you might be able to outsmart them thanks to those simple Saturday School lessons.
In the grand scheme of things, the equation is simple: If we don’t continue the tradition that has been given to us and proceed to educate ourselves and our youth about the Armenian cultural identity, eventually that knowledge might become lost. The role that these schools play in all of our lives is truly vital as American Armenians. A thought of Gulbenkian’s sums it up quite nicely: “All of the missed cartoons and sports practices don’t really seem as much fun as going to Saturday School was, even if I didn’t care to admit it. Now I’m confident in my knowledge and I’m proud of that.”
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