by Mary Haroyan
I’ve always been proud of my Armenian heritage. My mom was born in the United States, and my dad came to the U.S. from Nazi-occupied France when he was 13 years old.
Because he did not know English, speaking Armenian and French, he was very impacted by not knowing the language. The learning process was difficult for him, and as he learned English he would soon begin to let go of French. When I was very little, we spoke Armenian in the house, most especially with my grandparents, with whom we lived. As the time for starting kindergarten drew close, my dad decided that it was time to speak only English at home to ensure that my younger sister and I would know English and not experience what he did. Unfortunately, I learned English so well, and with Armenian not spoken with me, I soon forgot Armenian and most importantly began to lose the ability to communicate more fully with my grandparents. As deeply as I regret my dad’s decision and ultimately my mother going along with it, I know this was done with concern and love and didn’t have the benefit of the more enlightened thinking of today.
When I was about 11 or 12 years old I, along with my sister, enrolled in Armenian school, which was held on Saturday mornings at our church. We learned the Armenian alphabet and ultimately to read and write the language. The language books we used had the letters in somewhat large print and, combined with my having low vision at the time, enabled me to do well. I remember having so much fun in Armenian school, both in the learning as well as just the fun of being with other students, especially during recess. Unfortunately, the one area of comprehension that I was not able to achieve was to actually converse in the language. To this day, I can still picture many of the letters of the alphabet in my mind, remember a number of vocabulary words, speak a few very basic phrases, but not be able to participate in a conversation.
During my senior year in high school, I volunteered to teach Sunday school in the same church where I attended Armenian school. The school was conducted in English, and my class was with four- and five-year-old children. At this age they enjoyed playing more than paying too much attention to any lesson plan! This was fine with me. With my low vision, I somehow managed to “watch” what they were doing and be more likely to “figure out” what they were asking me to look at. I will always be grateful to those who ran the Sunday school for believing in my abilities and giving me the opportunity.
As happens with the passage of time, circumstances can change, and in my older adult years I’ve not maintained connections to a physical Armenian community beyond my immediate family. But there are some things that don’t change for me, like my ears always perking up when I hear the mention of an Armenian name, Armenian-sounding music, or commemoration events involving the Armenian Genocide.