Silent treatment for Armenia

A sign language class in Armenia. Photo: Unheard Voices of Armenia blog
A sign language class in Armenia. Photo: Unheard Voices of Armenia blog

What started out as a routine day at a local high school turned into an emotional experience for anyone familiar with giving talks on the Armenian genocide.

There we were at Chelmsford High School, ready to address five classrooms on the subject. By day’s end, close to 200 students would have heard our message about genocide as part of an educational collaborative in Merrimack Valley with Facing History and Ourselves.

Students come and go. Most get the message. Others are rather impassive toward it. Some teachers like Jennifer Doak at Chelmsford High are enamored by it. The same could be said for Lisa Joy Desberg and Maura Tucker at Wilmington High. All have taught a curriculum so high in demand and interest, there’s a waiting list.

That’s right — a surplus of students wishing to hear about the Armenian Genocide. You won’t find much in history books. But you’ll find it inside these world history classes because genocide and human rights are hot topics these days in view of the hostility which has besieged our world.

On this day, a student walked into the classroom with an adult — different from the rest. She was hearing impaired and had an interpreter by her side. They came over and introduced themselves accordingly, wishing to convey their gratitude over an outside guest.

“Is there a sign for Armenia?” I asked.

“Let me take a look,” she replied, turning to her all-inclusive cell phone for a possible answer.

“Can’t find one,” she finally said. “There’s a sign for other countries but for some strange reason, I cannot locate one for Armenia. But don’t worry. We’ll make one up.”

And so she did. Armenia now had its very own sign as the two — a very bright deaf student and her interpreter — adjourned to the back of the room.

The girl sat on the window sill with her aide facing her on a chair, back toward me. Over the next 45 minutes, no matter what was said at the front of the room, it was transmitted by sign language to the student. Two sets of eyes were locked together perceptively while their hands did the talking.

Words commonly used in Armenian historical context such as “Ottoman Empire” found their way to the young student’s mind.

She later approached me with her interpreter and instead of expressing her interest vocally, began signing away after an interval of lip-reading. She wanted us to know how much she appreciated this lesson on Armenian history and was sad to hear so many lives were lost during the massacre.

The two began signing again, looking to convey another thought.

“She wants to let you know that the best way to prevent other genocides from reoccurring is through respect, understanding and love,” the interpreter brought out.

I later learned that the deaf student was among the top in her class and was the subject of admiration by her peers.

Some years back, I was addressing a service club in town on this very same subject — genocide! About 50 businessmen were in the audience and I was scheduled to give a brief talk.

As I approached the dais and started my presentation, I noticed a man making gyrations. His head would be bobbing and turning everywhere except in my direction. It was annoying to see such a disruption amid a crowd of otherwise attentive listeners.

Could it have been someone of Turkish descent, looking to rattle me? Or some pacifist who may have felt that any knock on America for not recognizing the genocide was a rap against our constitutional rights? Too many martinis perhaps?

It wouldn’t have been the first time. I’ve been tarred and feathered by antagonists for remarks made against Turkey and always stood my ground under adversity. I was expecting the worst with this jaded individual.

Hey, it takes all kinds, I assumed.

As the presentation wound to a halt, and some pertinent questions addressed, I noticed that man retrieving a cane and working his way toward me, sidestepping each obstacle in his path.

He approached me with his hand extended. The same fellow that appeared discourteous in his seat was now showing a bit of etiquette. I was somewhat mystified by his behavior.

“I don’t know who you are or even what you look like,” said the man. “I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed your talk on the Armenian genocide. It’s very unfortunate that it’s gone unrecognized after all these years.”

Before I had a chance to reciprocate, he reached out and stole my heart.

“You see,” he added. “I happen to be blind.”

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