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The High School Teacher Who Changed My Life

 

I would like to dedicate this article to the sad occasion of the passing last month of my dear high school teacher, Olivia Balian, who changed my life with a noble gesture.

The year was 1968, and I was a student at the Sophia Hagopian Armenian High School in Beirut, Lebanon.

Ms. Olivia Balian (standing, third from right) as a member of the staff of the 1966-1967 school year (Photo: Levon and Sophia Hagopian Armenian College)

When the time came to register as a 10th grade student, I went to the principal’s office and told the staff that my parents could not pay the tuition. Although I was the top student in my class, I was sent home due to lack of money. This was a heartbreaking experience for a young man, as I loved being in school and desperately wanted to continue my education.

I went home and spent my day at my father’s tire-repair shop. He could barely earn enough to pay the tuition of my two other siblings. A very old man and respected member of the Ramgavar Party saw me in the shop and wondered why I was not in school. I told him I was sent home due to lack of funding. He offered to help by calling the principal of the AGBU Hovaguimian-Manougian High School and asking him to register me tuition-free. Even though the school was far away from my home, I could not pass the opportunity to continue my education. I took a city bus to downtown Beirut and went to the principal’s office. Being embarrassed to tell him that I was supposed to get free tuition, I told the principal that arrangements were made for me to study at a discounted tuition. I was stunned when the principal screamed at me that there was no such thing as a discounted tuition. I immediately turned around and rushed back to my father’s tire shop.

On the third day, one of my classmates from Sophia Hagopian High School came to my father’s shop to inform me that the principal had sent him to tell me that I should come back to school and register. When I arrived at my school, I told the registrar that I could not pay the tuition. She informed me that my tuition was fully paid and to go and join my classmates. I asked the registrar to tell me who paid for my tuition so I can thank that wonderful individual. I was told that the benefactor wanted to remain anonymous.

So, I went to my classroom, but kept wondering who was the person or organization that gave me the golden opportunity to continue my education. I went back to the principal’s office after classes and begged the registrar to disclose the name of the benefactor. Upon my insistence, and on the condition that I do not go and thank my benefactor and risk the registrar’s getting fired for breaking her confidentiality—she reluctantly informed me that the benefactor was none other than my English teacher, Olivia Balian. I promised that I would not talk to her.

The registrar also told me that when the school year started and Ms. Balian noticed that my classroom desk was unoccupied, she inquired why I was not in school. She was told that my parents could not pay the tuition. She then told the principal to deduct my tuition from her salary.

Olivia Balian

The whole year I sat in Ms. Balian’s class, thinking about her magnanimous gesture, but I was unable to express my appreciation to her. A year later, I came to the United States and eventually received two Master’s degrees—from Columbia University in New York (International Affairs) and from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles (MBA).

I never forgot the kindness and generosity of Ms. Balian, who paid for my tuition from her meager salary. Almost 40 years later, I returned to Beirut for the first time, to donate a total of $4.5 million from Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation to all 28 Armenian schools in the country. Among the schools I visited was my former high school. While handing the principal the donation of several hundred thousand dollars, I advised him never to keep any student away from the school for lack of money, because one never knows what that student will become in the future if he or she  continued his or her education. He or she could be a brilliant doctor, a good diplomat, the principal of a school, a church leader, or someone who ends up working for a billionaire benefactor who would make a major donation to the school.

While in Lebanon, I very much wanted to see Ms. Balian so many years later, to thank her for her generosity. She had retired from teaching long ago and lived in an apartment by herself outside Beirut. I arranged for my former classmates and the Armenian Archbishop of Lebanon to take me to her place. She was so thrilled to see me as I was. We had a very warm visit. Sitting next to her, I was finally able to thank her, but she did not want to hear about it and humbly changed the subject. I offered to assist her anyway possible, including financial help or special recognition by the community for her many decades of service to the education of young Armenians. She declined all offers.

I left her apartment with much contentment because I was able to finally acknowledge her generosity after all those years.

While this column is about Ms. Olivia Balian, it is also a testimony that one person can make a great difference in the lives of others. Without her timely assistance, giving me the unique opportunity to study English, I probably would have never come to the United States and would not have ended up as the publisher of an English-language newspaper, The California Courier. I probably would have spent the rest of my life repairing tires at my father’s shop in Beirut.

10 Comments on The High School Teacher Who Changed My Life

  1. avatar Mike Mirakian // October 17, 2017 at 12:24 pm // Reply

    God bless Ms. Balian and all of the Ms. Balians still out there and yet to come. Never underestimate the incredible power of a good deed or even the motivational encouragement can have on impressionable youngsters in our community.

  2. God bless her soul, I remember her very well.

  3. An incredibly uplifting story. A role model who influenced your life and in turn the life of many others. A great example for young people searching for mentors.

  4. Yes! I have heard this story from Mr. Sassounian himself when I had the pleasure meeting him when he was visiting our country at a friends home. It makes me very happy and sad at the same time on a personal level. How lucky for Mr. Sassounian that there was a teacher who was not only a professional person but also someone with a heart. I wonder how many of my generation were left out of normal education because their parents could not afford to pay their children’s school fees called “gertatoshag”. Sixty Lebanese pounds in those days for a year. I was one of those, and a very smart kid, taken out of school at the year four primary at a tender age of ten only to become a street kid selling Chewing gum to support the family. Later, I tried to become a shoe maker but was not able to become one. A musician but not a professional. My heart was in education. There were no Valerie Balians in my school to notice me. I have to wait another Forty years to be able to go to university with a big challenge and a huge struggle. I was fifty three years old to finish a degree and going back to university second time at sixty one and finishing another bachelor and a masters degree in Psychology/Psychotherapy. Consistency and determination paid off. Many of my generation missed out. It is very sad, because I know there were kids who were smarter than myself who’s parents could not pay as well. In the field that I work now, I encourage people never to give up and pursue the purpose that they are born for. Lucky for you Mr. Harut Sassounian that there was a teacher such as Ms. Balian who had the heart to care and to know the talents of her students. Teachers make or break the future of their students. Heart warming story indeed.

  5. avatar Dr. Gaby Kevorkian // October 17, 2017 at 8:49 pm // Reply

    God bless Ms. Olivia Balian and people who are as generous as she is.
    It is with those hidden, amazing, and thoughtful donors that humanity is celebrated.

  6. Thank you Harut for such a touching story. As a retired educator I know how deeply a teacher can inspire and bring out the best in a student. Brava to your teacher and to you to never forgot her kindness and pay it forward!

  7. avatar Just a thought // October 17, 2017 at 11:34 pm // Reply

    Thank you for sharing this touching story Mr Sassounian. Speaking of the Lincy foundation, it is unfortunate that Mr Kerkorian also went through a similar situation in his youth but did not get the necessary help from our community. Can’t help but wonder how much help we lost as a result over the years. But luckily, he came back to his culture a little bit, but things could have been so much better, no need to elaborate further. These are important life lessons.

  8. avatar Hriyr Dadaian // October 17, 2017 at 11:56 pm // Reply

    There was a famous saying that would apply to you and Ms Balian…”To the world you may be one person….but to one person, you may be the world”. God Bless you for sharing this with us!!!

  9. Ms. Olivia Balian, she was indeed a unique teacher; was very attentive to her pupils’ education/advancement and emotional well being. God bless her.

  10. avatar Flora Younanian Guiragossian // October 18, 2017 at 9:39 pm // Reply

    God bless her soul, she was my teacher too, she always had a beautiful smile when she entered the classroom. We loved her accent

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