Story and Photos By Georgi-Ann Bargamian Oshagan
“[Armenian Schools] are the light of our eyes. If your eyes can’t see, you are blind. Our schools are our eyes. That’s how we need to look at our schools.”
—Archbishop Shahan Sarkisian, Prelate of Aleppo, Syria, on the cultural importance of keeping Aleppo’s Armenian schools open as related in an October 2014 Armenian Weekly interview with then-editor Nanore Barsoumian
Special to the Armenian Weekly
A child clinging to her mother at the classroom door. Two girls whispering secrets and giggling with glee. A group of boys laughing and sharing stories and jokes. Parents and teachers conferring over classroom logistics and expectations.
These typical scenes animated the first day of a new school year at Detroit’s ARS Zavarian Armenian One-Day School. Starting on Friday, Sept. 15, and running through the end of May 2018, nearly 30 children from ages 5 to 14 will attend classes most Fridays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Although most of the children were segueing from a full American school day to attend Armenian school, students and parents alike had their reasons for making the extra effort.
“It’s so we can learn Armenian,” said 8-year-old Katia Mirachian. “We want to hear how our ancestors were,” added classmate Zabel Kazarian, also 8.
Those are words that fuel the ARS Detroit Mid-Council’s drive to keep the school operating year after year. Founded 74 years ago, the Mid-Council is comosed of metro Detroit’s five ARS chapters: “Maro,” “Shakeh,” “Sybille,” “Tsolig,” and “Zabel.” The Mid-Council oversees the Zavarian school and recruits staff and students in an Armenian diasporan environment where many view Armenian language learning as an unnecessary and emotionally painful litmus test for “being Armenian.”
Parent Talin Derderian knows the school-to-home dynamics that her newly enrolled 5-year-old daughter, Sevana, and she and her husband, Armen, will face in the weeks ahead. Talin is a graduate of New Jersey’s Nareg Armenian School, starting as a three-year-old. Armenian was spoken in her home and she speaks the language, eliminating the main reason many Armenian American-born parents don’t enroll their children in Armenian school. Armen doesn’t speak Armenian, and the language is not the main one in their household. Language doesn’t define the family’s commitment to the Armenian nation and drive to instill in their young children the perpetuation of their Armenian identity.
Nevertheless, the Derderians want Sevana to have the experience of attending Armenian school and learning whatever she can.
“I want Sevana to learn the language, the history,” Talin Derderian said. “I just want her to get familiar with the language so we don’t lose it in the family for future generations.”
“It’s hard when you have a parent who doesn’t know Armenian,” she acknowledged. “It’s not the language in the house. TV is in English. Her friends are speaking English. We spoke Armenian in our house. It’s different for these kids.”
Knowing the challenges of keeping Sevana comfortable and interested in continuing to attend Armenian school, Derderian has a game plan.
“We’ll make doing homework together a routine to reinforce what she learns and speaking the language more in the home. I’m going to tell her that this is your Armenian language and we can’t forget it.”
That’s exactly the parental support teachers want and need for the students, said ARS Mid-Council member Ani Attar, also a member of the ARS Eastern USA Regional Board of Directors.
“It’s so important for the parents to review what the kids did in the classroom,” Attar noted. “We can’t stress the importance of the parents enough.”
School principal and teacher Sona Vandervelde, teachers Taline Margosian and Sara Vosganian, and aide Silva Tufenkjian agree and are buoyed by the energy of the students and the high hopes of their parents on the first day of school.
“We have more students and parents want their children here,” said Vandervelde.
Mid-Council Chair Sirvart Telbelian agrees that the Zavarian school is off to a good start.
“We have so many students who returned, and it’s a great sign,” Telbelian noted. “And we have great teachers. These children are our future.”
The ARS Mid-Council expects more families to enroll their children at the next class session and encourages parents to give the school a try.
“Enrollment has been our biggest challenge,” said Attar. “Unfortunately, Armenian school is the last thing on the list of things to do for the kids—and the parents. Once they’re here, they’re very happy and the parents are very satisfied.”
Parents can contact Mid-Council Chair Sirvart Telbelian for more information about the Zavarian school at (248) 661-8145. Enrollment is $100 for the first child, $75 for the second child, and $50 for the third child.
Whatever the enrollment number, Attar said, the ARS Mid-Council will provide Armenian language instruction in metro Detroit.
“As long as we have interest and students, Zavarian School will never close,” she said. “ARS will have Armenian school for our children.”