Editor’s Note: This profile of Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School in Queens, New York was an assignment for a graduate course called “Writing and Reporting I” at New York University. It is first published in print and online in the Armenian Weekly.
Every morning, students gather in an auditorium in Queens to recite the Our Father in Armenian.
Students then meet their grade levels, each consisting of five to 10 students. Some start the day with their daily Armenian lesson, where they read Armenian literature or study Armenian history or sing Armenian patriotic songs.
Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School is one of 21 private Armenian Day Schools established across the United States. While offering standard subjects such as English, math, and science, Armenian day schools also require students to take courses in Armenian language, history, and religion. These schools transmit traditional Armenian culture and values to the younger generations of a diaspora community formed by displacement and dispossession.
Holy Martyrs, founded in 1967, is the only Armenian day school in New York. The small elementary school serves a population of less than 100 students in an area of approximately 150,000 The Armenians dispersed throughout New York, New Jersey and their suburbs.
Principal Seta Tavitian-Megherian believes the school equips students with the knowledge and pride to represent their heritage to the wider society in a city where the Armenian minority population is not visible.
“We want to share our food, share our culture, share our experience, share our faith, and that pride is instilled by something like the day school,” Tavitian-Megherian said in an interview with Armenian Weekly.
Tavitian-Megherian has a long-standing relationship with the Holy Martyrs. She graduated from the school in 1989 and volunteered for years at its summer camp and youth programs before taking the helm as a leader. She has enrolled her own children in Holy Martyrs, passing on what she considers to be the “best gift my parents gave my brother and me”.
“The school gave me a voice. A platform,” Tavitian-Megherian said. “I’m convinced that after I graduate, especially when you’re in a class as small as ten, seven [students], you have this sense of identity. You have an idea of who you are and what you want others to know about you.
Tavitian-Megherian took over this position from his mentor and former principal Zarminé Boghosian in 2015. Boghosian was reward the St. Sahag-St. Medal of Honor and Encyclical Mesrob awarded by the Order of Karekin II for his more than two decades of service to the Holy Martyrs.
While teaching in public schools before returning to her alma mater, Tavitian-Megherian relied on her Armenian upbringing when faced with questions about her name and ethnicity from her peers. .
“With a name like Seta, it didn’t do very well in public school. You had to go through an explanation. I prepared the children for this, as I was prepared for this change. We answer that question with great pride, and our kids are so ready to be a part of the real world when they go,” Tavitian-Megherian said.
A central principle of Armenian education is the preservation of the language. Armenian teachers at Holy Martyrs cite the language as key to protecting Armenian heritage in the diaspora.
Socy Nigdelian has been teaching Armenian language and history at Holy Martyrs since 2007.
She grew up in the Armenian Diaspora community in Lebanon and trained at the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus.
During her nearly 15 years of teaching, Nigdelian ran the Hye Bardez (“Armenian Garden”) program for toddlers, worked as a kindergarten teacher, and wrote an Armenian picture book. She now teaches elementary school students.
“Students must like to speak the language. I ‘brainwash’ them, as I like to tell them, that they need to strengthen their ability to speak, so that when they grow up they teach their children, who will teach their children, so that the language and the culture don’t die,” she said in Armenian, laughing as she used the English word for “brainwashing.” “You have to instill in them a love of Armenian heritage. It’s not just about teaching. »
Nigdelian believes that Armenian schools should be protected as pillars of the Armenian diaspora.
“It’s important to teach students about the homeland, our displacement, but it’s also important to keep the diaspora strong,” she said.
Natalie Gabrelian, alumnus of the Holy Martyrs, has dedicated her career to advancing Armenian education. She is Director of Education at AGBU, where she worked for 13 years developing Armenian educational programs around the world. Although she graduated from Holy Martyrs more than two decades ago, she feels she never left.
“The fact that it was a small environment, a small school, where we knew each other very well, it went from a school to a family,” she said. “You never lose touch with people.”
Since graduating, Gabrelian has served on the Holy Martyrs School Board, the Education Committee and the Friends of HMADS Fundraising Committee. Through her continued service to the Holy Martyrs, she hopes to express her gratitude for her Armenian upbringing and ensure that “the opportunity given to me is always available for generations to come.”
“You can identify not only other former students, but usually someone who went to an Armenian school across the room. There is a certain look, a certain way of holding oneself. Once you start a conversation, you will reminisce, reflect, laugh and maybe cry together. There is a golden shared bond,” she said.
Gabrelian carries the appreciation of her heritage and the strong work ethic she learned at Holy Martyrs into her professional life. She is now exploring methods to not only nurture and protect, but also innovate Armenian education.
“Teach [students] history, culture, language, so that it is not just a legacy. It’s something that they realize is very much alive and will be alive in the future, and they have the power within them to define it in their own way and pass it on, not just to generations of people. ‘Armenians, but to stand on this world stage and preach it to the world,’ she said.
Tavitian-Megherian says she has seen many alumni like Gabrelian continue to engage with New York’s Armenian community and share their love for their heritage beyond graduation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Holy Martyrs students often participated in community events, performing in Times Square at rallies against the Armenian Genocide or singing with the St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church Choir.
According to Tavitian-Megherian, Armenians have a responsibility to represent their heritage to the community through such events.
“If we don’t, who will?” she asked rhetorically.