BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
Do you remember a celebration of the first day of the new academic year, either for your kids or yourself? I don’t. However here in Armenia, the first day of the school year, which falls on September 1st, has a special meaning. They call it “Knowledge Day” and it is pompously observed throughout Armenia.
I usually don’t head out early in the morning in Yerevan; however a few years ago, it happened I was out early around 8:30am. I was surprised to see streets all packed with cars. On the sidewalks, parents were walking their kids to school. Soon I realized it was the first day of school.
It was a perfect Kodak moment. I could tell from their crisp ironed uniforms they had on, how much effort, the night before, the parents had put into dressing up their kids. Every child was groomed nicely—boys had neat combed hair and girls had pretty barrettes which held their hair back. I could see sparkles in every child’s eyes. Some of the kids carried a few stems of flowers to give to their teachers. The sight of those kids raised my heart beat.
Knowing about the celebration of the first day of the school year, I planned ahead and arranged my time to be present at a school in a village called Dsegh. I chose that village for two reasons. First, a few years ago when we were crisscrossing Armenia as a group, we had stopped there to watch a performance organized by the school’s English club. They had prepared a few skits in the English language for our visit, which put us in awe. Our group, especially the non-Armenians, were amazed beyond words. How could kids from a village perform so well?
I should add that the English club had been established by Mary Ann Hearty, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Dsegh. She first arrived in Dsegh in 2010. Then she extended her service twice. Let’s hear from Mary Ann Hearty in her own words why she extended her stay in Armenia. She says, “No one in the village spoke English and I had only minimum Armenian language skills. After a year and a half, however, I had some traction and it seemed like a good idea to stay and keep the momentum going.” You can read more about that visit here.
The second reason I had chosen Dseg was because it is the birthplace of our iconic poet Tumanyan. From the first time I had visited the village, I had been mesmerized with the house-museum of Tumanyan, where he was born. Most of all, I had fallen in love with the idea that I could stay next door to the museum, in a cottage that once belonged to the Tumanyan’s family, which had been turned into a bed and breakfast.
I had stayed at the B&B next door in the past, so I decided to repeat my experience and this time to write my reflections on Tumanyan, and in the meantime participate in the opening ceremony of the school.
Rima runs the B&B and her sister Anahit owns a puppet store next door. She makes her puppets from a combination of cloth, and knitted and crocheted materials. Her puppets are based on characters from Tumanyan’s stories. Her life size puppets, which she arranges outside of her store, add so much to the ambiance of the museum next door. I love to go to her store to watch the puppets and talk to her. She refreshes my memory about some of Tumanyan’s stories that I’ve forgotten. She recites the verses of the poems so dear to me. She shows me how to spin wool into a thread. It’s a fun experience to be at her store.
The day I arrived in Dsegh I told Rima that I wanted to be present at the celebration of the first day of school. She said, “No problem.” She called Nouneh, the vice principle of the school. Nouneh lives behind the museum. I went to see Nouneh at her home.
That day, Nouneh was busy barbecuing eggplants to conserve them for winter.
Armenian housewives traditionally prepare fruit jams and all sorts of preserves for winter, beginning in fall. Nouneh invited me to her living room. In the corner of the room, I saw a computer and a piano. Nouneh told me that she plays piano and she’s been practicing with kids for the opening ceremony of the first day of the school.
Nouneh was a vivacious woman in her late 40s. I was impressed to see a home in a village with a piano and a computer. She even let me check my emails on her computer. In the village there’s no WIFI and they use the telephone line to get connected to the Internet. She said that everyday she Skypes with her married daughter who lives in Moscow, Russia.
On September 1st, I woke up early, had breakfast and headed to the school.
On my way I saw groups of kids with their parents walking to school. The boys and girls had crisp, ironed white shirts and dark blue skirts or pants. Some younger boys from the first and second grades had suits on.
As I arrived at the school, I saw a crowd of a few hundred people gathered in front. They had turned the front porch of the school into a makeshift stage. The mood was very festive. They had decorated the columns with colorful balloons.
I worked my way up to the stage. Soon I realized that what I was wearing was not at all proper for the occasion. Nouneh had an elegant dark blue outfit with sequins on. Others had similar dressy and classic ensembles. And I was wearing a casual colorful jacket and jeans.
Nouneh had told me that she was going to put me on the program, and she had asked me to prepare a few words to say to the kids. I was kind of embarrassed, appearing in front of the crowd with my colorful outfit while everybody else was wearing subdued whites, grays or dark colors.
Nouneh started the program with a poem that she had composed herself in admiration of the fall season.
Դեղնավարս աշունն է սուլում՝
Բացվում են դռները դպրոցի
Առաջին զանգն է կարկաչում
Սեպտեմբերը կանչում է դասի։
Then, dignitaries gave a little speech, including yours truly. Afterwards, singing and dancing began. Nouneh had prepared a good variety of dance and song scores. She had even included an English language hip-hop dance. The theme of most poems constituted promise of excellence and transformation into greatness.
She had even included the incoming first grade kids in the program. The whole program, especially the group of younger kids reciting poems, put me in awe and melted my heart. On the stage I was trying to get as many pictures as I could. It was hard to believe these kids were village boys and girls.
I was so inspired and impressed with the whole situation. The kids in the front row were nicely groomed. The girls had huge barrettes with frills, which made me wonder where they got them from.
The festivities were rounded up in less than an hour. Then, first grade kids lined up in pairs and proceeded to their classroom. I followed them along with their parents and the principal of the school. Fortunately there was someone who was filming the whole affair. If you watch the clip you will see how refreshing it was when the teacher handed their study books to first graders. I felt so fortunate to be there and share those moments.
Afterwards I had a little talk with the Principal of the school, Edward Shekoyan, who had gone to the same school. He’s been the principal since 2011. The school initially was founded in late 1800s. During Soviet times in 1963, the school got a new building and it began a new era with around 1,000 students.
Recently the dilapidated school went through a total rehabilitation and acquired a new roof and a new heating system in addition to new doors and windows. I can attest that the school looked squeaky clean.
Principal Shekoyan was proud of his students who had excelled in many competitions, such as soccer, basketball, wrestling and music. They had won many first place awards in the Lori region. Today the school caters to a sparse number of students—only 230 from first to 12th grade. 800 families live in the village.
That day I left Desgh with many fond memories.