Friday, March 10, 2006

History Friday: A Lesson About The Armenian Genocide

A Chicago school administrator returned to the classroom and used an unusual teaching technique to get her point across:
Mary Olson, an administrator in Warren Township High School District 121, asked everyone in Lindsey Holm's history class to stand and then instructed all healthy boys at least 16 years old to sit.

"If you were Armenian boys in World War I, you'd probably be dead," Olson told the boys, who had all returned to their seats.

She then invited all girls who were wearing earrings or other jewelry, or those who had fillings in their teeth, to sit. All of the girls sat down.

"You're still alive," Olson said, allowing the girls a brief sigh of relief. "However, you were rounded up and marched through the desert."

And what would have happened to the girls once they got to the desert? Olson said their earrings would have been ripped from their ear lobes. Their fingers may have been broken to retrieve any rings they were wearing, and the fillings would have been removed from their teeth.

To students and staff in District 121, Olson is the curriculum guru, serving as the district's director of instruction and school improvement.

Occasionally, however, Olson steps outside of her usual role and returns to the classroom to share her wealth of knowledge about history. As Holm's class at the O'Plaine campus learned on March 2, Olson is a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide that took place in the early 1900's.

With a colorful piece of embroidery from her grandmother as a backdrop, Olson shared her knowledge of Armenian history, along with her family's stories of survival.

Olson's story was one that Holm thought her students should hear.

"To have a source like her ... is just so important for the kids to know," said Holm. "A lot of things she talked about our textbook barely glosses over."

Olson spoke briefly of Armenia's history, including the country's status as being the first to declare Christianity as the official religion in 301 AD. Olson noted that it was the Armenians' belief in Christianity that made them a target, even as early as 451 AD. A Persian king declared war on the Armenians because he feared that Christianity would become popular in Persia.

"Fast-forward to the 19th century," she said, preparing to speak about the genocide that she says Turkey still denies. Turkish authorities, she said, attribute the deaths of thousands of Armenians during that period to famine and disease.

Olson again asked the class to stand. Those whose parents have any post-high school education or work in the health care, clergy, teaching, writing, journalism or music professions were told to sit. All but two students sat down.

Olson told the students who were sitting that they would have been orphans.

"On April 24, 1915, the Turks rounded up the educated Armenians. There was some jealousy going on," Olson said. "All those people were rounded up and they were imprisoned and tortured.

"Then other cities were visited and told to get rid of their Armenians," she said.

Returning Armenian soldiers were knocked unconscious with shovels and buried alive, Olson told the students. Others -- primarily women, children and elderly men -- were rounded up and marched through the desert to Syria and Jordan, Olson said. There was no food or water, and many of the young girls were physically abused.

Some women drowned themselves in the Tigris River to avoid the suffering, Olson added. So many people did this, she noted, that the bodies eventually had to be burned so the water could be made drinkable again.

Families who attempted to escape into the mountains were forced to take desperate measures to keep themselves alive, Olson said. One family, she said, was forced to sacrifice one of their children by pushing the child over a cliff. The boy fell onto a ledge, however, and cried, resulting in the Turks capturing the family.

"The little boy was my uncle, by marriage," Olson said. Her maternal grandmother was smuggled out to France during the war and later came to Waukegan at age 14.

Holm said she was touched by Olson's story.

"The story that stands out for me (was about) the poor child being pushed over the cliff," Holm said. "I could only imagine having to choose. And that happened in her family."
Olson presented a powerful lesson. But I believe that it could have been even more powerful if the somebody could have visited the classroom in order to present the Turkish viewpoint.

More about the Armenian genocide
can be found here.
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