WALTHAM, Mass.—On Saturday night, hundreds celebrated the Armenian school that has, since 1984, meant so much to so many generations of Diasporan Armenian families in the Greater Boston area—St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES).
“We all believe in the worthy mission of Armenian schools,” said SSAES principal Houry Boyamian during the sold out event celebrating the Watertown school’s 35th anniversary. “Offering children their heritage language is a unique gift which gives them confidence, enriches their lives and makes them productive members of the community,” said Boyamian, who has been serving as principal of SSAES for the past 31 years.
Only eight students were enrolled when SSAES first opened its doors in the fall of 1984. Armed with the unwavering vision of providing a high quality bilingual education that upholds Armenian language studies, today the school is a second home for almost 200 preschool and elementary students. “There aren’t too many things since I’ve been here that have given me greater joy than to know that we have this school in our community,” said Reverend Archpriest Antranig Baljian who has led St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church for 25 years. Three of his grandchildren are current students at SSAES.
“St. Stephen’s is where my love for anything and everything Armenian started,” said longtime Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) member and SSAES alumni volunteer Meghri Dervartanian (class of 2008). “This school has shaped me to be the person I am today. It has instilled a passion for our language in me that I hope to instill in future generations.”
Dervartanian was joined by her classmates and more than 400 other supporters from the community at the Westin Waltham-Boston Hotel, sharing the fondest memories of growing up at St. Stephen’s during a lively cocktail hour with classical pianist Levon Hovsepian. Armenian operatic sensation Mister X also charmed guests throughout the evening, opening the program with a moving tribute to the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Eventually, his diverse repertoire brought guests to their feet, creating a vibrant dance floor.
The 35th anniversary celebration—”Preserving Our Culture and Shaping Our Future”—was led by mistress of ceremonies and Harvard professor Dr. Lisa Gulesserian, who teaches the endangered language of Western Armenian to Armenian and non-Armenian students alike. “The Armenian language and its words are central to our understanding of our own culture, our history and fundamentally ourselves,” said Dr. Gulesserian.
“If we don’t immerse our children in rigorous instruction of Armenian language – reading, writing and culture – we will have a generation of Armenians who will be silent,” said keynote speaker Dr. Diran Apelian, who attended Nishan Palanjian Jemaran in Beirut, Lebanon with Mrs. Boyamian. Dr. Apelian also emphasized the pivotal role SSAES plays in cultivating the identity of a young Armenian. “If we don’t make the explicit decision and commitment to maintain our language, we will indeed limit a dynamic generation who will be shackled by their limited understanding of themselves.”
SSAES’ goal to instill a love of the Armenian language would have been impossible without its loyal Armenian teachers. Ardemis Megerdichian has been a fixture for the past 21 years. “My proudest moment as a teacher is seeing my students become successful with the highest honors in their fields,” said Megerdichian in an interview with the Armenian Weekly. “And I am even prouder when my students speak Armenian and truly fulfill the ultimate mission.”
Kindergarten teacher Alik Arzoumanian says the early years are the most critical. “I try to do hands-on activities where they can build, create and learn from projects that are not strictly academic…like making bread and butter,” she explained. “We speak Armenian during these projects so they know that they can also speak Armenian when they play and have fun.”
Longtime volunteers, including event chair Nicole Babikian Hajjar and education committee co-chairs Krista Aslanian and Heather Krafian, were also recognized. “I am just trying to be sure the flame stays lit,” said Krafian, whose father-in-law Yervant Krafian was one of the founders.
“We believe in what the school stands for,” said volunteer and 1992 alumna Sabine Chouljian Keljik, reflecting on her continuous responsibility to support the last remaining Armenian day school in Massachusetts. “We have to fight for it. We have to fight harder than ever.”
Under Boyamian’s direction, the school has celebrated many milestones and improvements over the years, including the lauded expansions of the preschool building in 2004 and 2012, the launch of the STEM Initiative in 2011, and the most memorable for every graduating student since 2004 – the highly anticipated class trip to Armenia, where the young people return feeling like they were baptized as Armenians. This year’s class will be visiting the Armenian Relief Society’s (ARS) Soseh Kindergarten of Qarekah (Karabakh) and will donate a portion of Saturday’s proceeds to the program.
Best friends since their carefree days in pink smocks, Ani Khatchatourian and Talin Sagherian reminisced on their journey to Armenia. “What other fifth grader is riled up that much and so emotional to get to a place and literally cry on the plane? What fifth grader has that connection with anything? I feel like that’s only at St. Stephen’s,” said Sagherian. The two enjoyed their evening laughing and sharing childhood memories with others from the class of 2007, many of whom have been longtime members of the AYF since they graduated, which points to another mission of SSAES—that is, to propel a sense of belonging in the Armenian community by staying involved in youth organizations and fearlessly fighting for the Armenian Cause.
More than 200 alumni participated in the 35for35 Challenge in the months leading up to Saturday’s fundraising banquet, raising $6,500 and adding to the evening’s grand total of $350,000 for the SSAES financial aid program.
“I renew the pledge made 35 years ago,” exclaimed Boyamian to an enthusiastic crowd. “We will continue to provide an excellent bilingual education, and we will continue to make it accessible to every Armenian American child in the community.”