In the January 27, 1977 edition of Asbarez, there was an article written by Mr. Hrayr Garabedian titled “ՄՐՋՆԻԿԸ ՄԱՔՈՒՐ ՀԱՅԵՐԷՆ ԿԸ ԽՕՍԻ” where it detailed his trip to San Francisco to visit friends. He wrote about the beautiful sites, and how amidst all the majestic bridges, hills, and homes, his most beautiful recollection was at a Homenetmen program where many kids artfully performed songs, dances and then took their scout oaths. In his article, he details with pathos, his feelings about a timid young girl who approached the stage, stating “Յուզումը սեղմեց կոկորդս երբ մրջնիկ մը ամօթխածութիամբ բեմ եկաւ և սկսաւ թուել պատուիրաններ Ամերիկա ծնած հայու մը առոգանութեամբ երբ ըսաւ «մրջնիկը մաքուր Հայերէն կը խօսի».” He then articulated questions about what this young scout might be feeling while reciting these commandments and with heartfelt sincerity articulated the joy and pride he felt as he heard this child’s recitation. Towards the end of the op-ed, he wrote a profound and rebellious statement, “Որքան պզտիկ կը տեսնեմ ծեզ Թալաթ և Էնվեր. փորձեցիք հայ մը ձգել միայն, այն ալ թանգարանին մէջ և ահաւասիկ այսօր, Ամերիկա ծնած և հազիւ վեց տարիներ բոլորած մրջնիկը բեմ կը բարձրանայ և կ’ըսէ «մրջնիկը մաքուր հայերէն կը խօսի» ձայն կ’առնէ սկաուտ երիտասարդը ու եռագոյն դրօշին տակ կը փաստէ որ հայը աշխարաքաղաքացի չէ, կ՛ապրի «երկրորդ հայրենիք»ին մեջ, բայց ունի ի՛ր հայրենիքը։
The little mrchneeg that Mr. Garabedian is referring to was me. I do not remember the day. I do not remember the commandments. But I do remember my father driving us to Saturday school in a maroon Ford Maverick as he listened to KFRC with my mother by his side testing us on grammar rules in the old “Pokrig Ani” books. Saturdays were “Armenian day” – Saturday school, then Scouts. What I also remember is the love from teachers and scout leaders, the Kooyr Astghigs, Baron Rosdoms, Deegen Loosins, Digin Shahvekilians, Kooyr Marals, and Kooyr Nayiris who taught us these commandments, taught us how to read and write in a language which looks like the needlework of loving hands.
Every Saturday, my friends and I would be in the rented facility of AP Gianinni Middle School for three hours, where volunteers taught us Armenian language, Armenian history and Armenian music. Recess would be held in the playground which we shared with a Japanese Saturday school, and then Baron Rosdom would ring a bell where we would line up and go back to class with our brothers and sisters. After school, we would change into our scout uniforms and “poghgabs” for our Homenetmen meetings in the same school’s gym. These were the days that saved a generation of Armenian Americans. Those same teachers, parents and principals, meanwhile, were spending their Sundays raising money at chicken lunches to open the Bay Area’s only Armenian day School – Krouzian Zekarian Vasbouragan Armenian School, of which my youngest daughter will be graduating, hopefully, sometime this summer after the shelter in place is lifted.
During the current shelter in place, this little “mrchneeg” has begun the tedious and frankly, intimidating task of not only reading Raffi’s “Khentuh” with her dear Armenian teacher Ani Astourian, but also texting friends without using the eerily popular “Latinized Armenian” but in Mesrobian Armenian. Considering the benefit of life being forced to slow down, this is something I have chosen to do. Instead of practicing my Spanish with Babbel, I have resorted to weekly Zoom meetings with my teacher not only to improve my Armenian, but to also remind myself of the difficulty of being on the other side of learning. The struggle is profound. The inability to comprehend some complicated sentences reminds me of the difficulty my own struggling learners have in English class.
I have also requested that my teacher correct me when I make a texting mistake. One day, she sent me a reminder about the rule of “being” – “Sevana, «կ’ըլլայ» ապաթարցի պէտք ունի քանի որ իրականութեան մէջ կը ըլլայ է եւ երկու ը ը, երկու ձայնաւոր իրարու հետ լաւ չեն հնչեր (ֆրանսերէնի պէս): Ուրեմն, առաջին ը–ը կը հանենք եւ տեղը ապաթարց կը դնենք:”
Translated, these are the acts of having, saying, going, rising, singing and doing – all the things I am attempting to do with my mother tongue during this unprecedented time. Having the ability to speak, saying the terms correctly, going through the numerous Armenian multi-syllabic words which I struggle with, rising to the occasion to use them, singing Armenian songs to myself and then looking online to define the words I don’t understand, and in the end, doing what I think is best to keep our “Armenian-ness” during the shelter in place.
Being Armenian should not be an adjective, but a verb.
Ironically, the Zoom meetings have cemented my view on the importance of Armenian schools in the diaspora. Without them, our idea of Armenian-ness will remain an adjective, a descriptor, and not a verb, the process of being. Without our language, and without an immersion into our culture, the diaspora will indeed slowly dissipate, and sorry to say Mr. Garabedian, «մրջնիկը մաքուր հայերէն չի խօսիր» if diasporan communities do not put all their efforts into sustaining Armenian language instruction. Without the language base, the ideas of being Armenian will simply be ideas. I am trying to avoid quoting some esoteric existentialist and am keeping it simple. We must create a movement to support Armenian language instruction and Armenian schools. They are the retaining walls of our culture, holding communities together all over the world. The Digin Andonians (Krouzian Zekarian Vasbouragan Armenian School), Kouyr Emmas (Philadelphia Armenian Sisters Academy) Houry Boyamians and Ardemis Megerdichians (St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School), Digin Ekmekjians and Digin Panossians (both in San Francisco and Philadelphia) are at the helm of schools in cities that may or may not necessarily have large Armenian communities. Students speak fluent Armenian, have fun and establish lifelong bonds with their Armenian classmates, and go on to excel in high schools and universities all over the world. What else would a parent want? However, the new question is how do we ensure language retention? The diaspora has perfected the business of “heritage containment.” We have managed to keep a tightly knit “ecosystem” of Armenians through camps, cruises, sports weekends and conferences. The adjective of being Armenian peaks through April 24th, the Armenian “groundhog day” where communities don their Armenian flags and individuals post photos of their ancestors on social media. (For the record: I am not stating that this is a bad thing. It is incredibly important, but there needs to be more, a «նոր Զարթօնք» a renaissance.) However, now that all of those events have been placed on a temporary hold, our most viable method of cultural conservation is through language and its instruction.
Being Armenian should not be an adjective, but a verb. The act of “being” is made active through the ability to read, write, speak and think in Armenian. We could argue that my writing this article in English proves this point – as much I would like to think I speak “մաքուր հայերէն,” my English is far more fluent.
If there is any one benefit to the shelter in place during the current pandemic, it is the realization of using online platforms for socializing and learning. Online platforms like Zoom and Google Meet have enabled a group of Armenian educators to begin the process of online instruction for adults at all levels of Armenian language skills. Hamazkayin has started these classes and hopefully, more people can take advantage from the remote access of their homes. That said, this is best sustained as a supplement to actual instruction. The best place to make sure future diasporan generations receive that instruction is through immersing students in Armenian language via Armenian schools.
As I write this, my daughter is in her last few weeks of formal Armenian instruction. I hear the dear voice of her teacher through her Zoom lessons. I see my daughter participate in deep and profound discussions with her classmates in her Armenian history class. Although I am saddened that this virus took her final months of Armenian school away from her, when I witness these moments, I am filled with joy, gratitude and hope.
Forty three years ago, a man I have never met was moved by a child he didn’t know in a community he didn’t live in. He wrote the article in perfect and fluent Armenian. Forty three years later, that same “mrchneeg” is sitting in that same city, attempting to practice her own Armenian.
Mr. Garabedian, wherever you are, I hope you find this well. You said 43 years ago, «Ամերիկայի ծայրագոյն արեւմուտքի քաղաքներէն մէկուն մէջ Հայ աղջնակ մը բեմ կ’ելլէ և կ’արտասանէ բառեր, նախադասութիւններ, Հայերէն լեզուով» and I want to clarify that the little scout who brought you to tears is now writing to you in English, but her children, who have attended Armenian schools their whole life will hopefully write to you in the future in perfectly spelled, fluent Armenian.
Hope is a far more powerful feeling than optimism. If we, as a united diasporan force, begin to fully support our local Armenian schools, then it is my hope that our language—the common denominator and foundation of our culture—will consistently fill auditoriums and homes with the sounds that brought this man to tears in 1977, in San Francisco.