Taline Arsenian walked through the doors of her Glendale middle school classroom 16 years ago expecting to teach her usual math class of 35 students.
When the bell rang, she saw nearly half of the class was absent. Then she remembered the date: April 24, a day observed in recognition of the Armenian genocide.
As the years went by, more students, both Armenians and non-Armenians, began missing school on that date.
Arsenian's family came from an Armenian village that is now part of Turkey. Her grandparents were survivors of an event that left more than 1 million Armenians dead. As a teenager, she shared a bedroom with her grandmother, who told her stories of how her ancestors were deported and her homeland was taken over. And for decades, Armenians struggled for recognition around the globe that a genocide had been perpetrated against their people.
"It hits very close to home," said Arsenian, 49. "When you hear that denial and it's part of your family tree, it's very personal. All I have to do is follow my family tree to see it's interrupted by genocide."
This year, Glendale Unified became the first school district in the country to establish a day in remembrance of the genocide, which began in 1915 and resulted in the death of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Schools will now close on any weekday when it's April 24 in memory of the Armenian genocide.
Southern California is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia, and Glendale has long been seen as a kind of Armenian cultural mecca. People of Armenian descent make up about 40% of Glendale's 210,000 residents. The city remains a point of entry for Armenian immigrants and each year, as April 24 approaches, locals drape Armenian flags over the hoods of their cars, wave them from their car windows and hang them from their businesses. Most stores post signs in both English and Armenian telling customers they will be closed in remembrance of the genocide.
Establishing the holiday in the schools is part of a larger effort in the heavily Armenian city to keep the memory of the genocide alive at a time when few survivors remain. Armenian Americans are hoping to make progress on the local level after losing an emotional bid last year to have the U.S. government officially recognize the genocide.
More than 20 countries have recognized the genocide, according to a list maintained by the Armenian National Institute. President Obama has not called the massacre a "genocide" since he took office, despite campaign trail promises to do so and heavy lobbying by the Armenian community. Administration officials have said Obama made a necessary decision, crucial to the U.S. alliance with Turkey. Despite this, more than 40 states
— including California — have recognized the genocide, according to the institute.
As ethnic Armenians worldwide mark the 101st anniversary of the genocide, Glendale's Armenians are celebrating the school district's decision as a small step in the decades-long battle for recognition. Since the 2013-2014 school year, students and teachers in Glendale have been given the day off on April 24, an unofficial acknowledgment that so many would be out anyway.
"Glendale has been my home for 25 years, and to know that an elected body in my city has acknowledged an Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is very significant," Arsenian said.
Glendale Unified school board member Greg Krikorian said that when he was growing up in Hartford, Conn., people would ask him who the Armenian people were. They hadn't heard of Armenia, let alone the genocide.
"It brings relevance to it," said Krikorian, whose grandparents became orphans after the killings. "It is a victory if we can educate more students and children and faculty on what really happened."
He added: "My personal family is very small because of what the Ottoman Turks did."
Armenians regard the tragedy that took place in 1915 as part of an organized, orchestrated effort by the Ottoman Turkish government. Historians have characterized what happened as a precursor of — and even a model for — genocides that followed, including Adolf Hitler's systematic slaughter of European Jews and other groups decades later.
Turkey disputes that a genocide happened, but other countries, including Canada, France and Italy, use the term. In recent years, the Armenian community's goal has shifted from mere recognition to a call for reparations.
Outside Glendale High School on Friday morning, many Armenian American students wore shirts commemorating the genocide that read: "Our wounds are still open. 1915."
Arpi Badlians' father was born in Armenia, she said, and he taught her to stand in solidarity with the community at an early age. She said she's been marching in remembrance rallies since she was 10. The 17-year-old said she's grateful for the district's decision to commemorate the day on the calendar.
"In this world, we aim for equality," she said.
Jesika Kubesarian and her brother, David, said they plan to march in a rally Sunday. Their grandmother always spoke about the genocide, Jesika said, but never talked about the people she knew and lost.
"You march to appreciate the days they didn't have. Every day we walk, we know they deserved to be in our shoes, to live and not die," Jesika, 14, said of the victims. "The generation who survived the genocide taught us to be strong."
Astghik Hakobyan, president of the Armenian Student Assn. at Glendale Community College, called the district's decision "absolutely perfect."
"My father's grandparents were genocide survivors. I always heard their stories when I was little. It gave me goose bumps," Hakobyan, 21, said. Her great-grandparents became orphans after the attacks. "There is no Armenian in the world who doesn't have a relative that was affected by the genocide."
At Sevana Gifts on Glendale Avenue, keychains decorated with the Armenian flag hang on Serop Shahbazian's counter. Come Sunday, the 59-year-old's store will be closed.
He said he was glad that Glendale schools would close in memory of the genocide.
"We don't say, 'This is not important because it's a school,'" Shahbazian said as a woman rushed to the register and asked if he had any flags left.
He handed the woman two flags, then continued: "This is not a movie. It's our reality. It's pain and it's hurt."