People who know me will be surprised that I was once a quiet, shy child – that is until I got to the second grade in Mrs. Khachatoorian's class at Fletcher Drive School in Los Angeles, California. That year with her was a transformative year that arguably changed the trajectory of my life, and gave me the tools that I needed (and often referred to in later years) to muster the courage and get through life's challenging moments. And so when I became a teacher, I often thought about what Mrs. Khachatoorian did for me and it drove me to do the same thing for all my students.
An early pivotal moment that I remember was when Mrs. Khachatoorian asked the class if anyone knew who the governor of California was. Students shouted out the names of celebrities and ex-presidents. I remember Mrs. Khachatoorian repeatedly rendering “no” to responses in her gravelly voice. What did second graders know anyway at that age? And yet, somehow a name struck my mind, but I was much too shy to speak aloud, so I nudged my deskmate Mark and whispered to him, “Duekmejian”, hoping he would announce this to the class. But it was too late. Mrs. Khachatoorian had spotted me and loudly exclaimed, “Paul, no whispering! What are you talking to Mark about? Tell the class!” I remember being scared and immediately came out with it though unassuredly. “George Duekmejian?” Mrs. Khachatoorian's dim eyes grew astoundingly wide and she got so excited. I was amazed by how quickly she went from angry to elated. The memory still stays with me to this day. And it was only in my late 20s did I realize why she even asked that question to our class that day and why it meant so much to her; Mrs. Khachatoorian is Armenian and George Duekmejian was the first governor of California of Armenian descent.
So when October came around, Mrs. Khachatoorian cornered me and enlisted me to be in a Halloween play for our class. I couldn't say no. She told me that I would be the lead in the play. I agreed with no fuss. Then she gave me the script. The play consisted of three characters, a lead pumpkin role with two smaller roles, also pumpkins. The play mainly was a long dialogue among pumpkins about the joy of Halloween. Immediately I noticed that the lead pumpkin role had twenty lines and the smaller roles only had about ten. I shuddered at the idea of so much memorization. Within a day, I gathered the will to approach Mrs. Khachatoorian to ask for a role change. I remember this moment quite clearly. I tapped her shoulder during an opportune moment in class.
She turned around and inquired unimpressed, “What do you want, Paul?”
“Would it be okay if I changed to the other pumpkin part because I don't know if I can remember so many lines…”
She quickly cut me off and with a hint of rage, “Paul, you do it or you don't do it at all!”
I think I whimpered weakly and said okay, but I definitely slunk away. I ended up performing in the play in that lead role and I was able to remember all the lines; everything went fine. That role was parlayed into a role as Santa Claus in a play for the school Christmas program in December of that year. I remember my mom in the audience smiling the whole time.
I will always be grateful for Mrs. Khachatoorian really seeing me and giving me no way to make excuses or be less than my potential. Other students may need to be coaxed, cajoled, or bribed to do a task (and she employed those methods, too!), but she seemed to know what would work for me. And so I will always regard that year with Mrs. Khachatoorian as when I developed the idea that anything could be possible for me. How powerful is that thought for a six-year-old child? How did that way of thinking impact my life up until now?
Mrs. Khachatoorian, you empowered me and so I will spend my life giving the gift you gave to me to the students I now teach in China1. You will always be my favorite teacher. Thank you!