Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Richard Boyajian, My Armenian Friend, A Classic Teacher and Inoculating Baby Chicks                        

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 7:36 pm on Tuesday, August 9, 2022

by Robert M. Katzman © December 28, 2021

(This story – about a very odd moment in time – was originally published in 2008 in my book, Fighting Words Vol 4, as a response to an email from Richard Boyajian’s daughter Holly, about a story I wrote on improving the relationship between Turkey and Armenia. She answered what I wrote online without knowing me or that I was a student of her father, Richard, when I was in high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1964-8. 

Later, he owned an import store on 53rdStreet in Hyde Park where Holly also worked, after Mr. B retired from that school at a time when I owned a once well-known business called Bob’s Newsstand, an international source for newspapers and periodicals. I may even have met Holly without either of us knowing who each of us were in relation to her father. 

While my thoughts about that part of the world are no longer something I think about, fourteen years later, this little story still is. Hope you like it and that Holly, wherever she may be today, sees it again and still likes it too).

In 1964 in Chicago’s Hyde Park area, seven miles south of State & Madison streets in Downtown Chicago, home of the Museum of Science and Industry, The University of Chicago, its famous Law School and Medical School, and many more such places, I was a student at its private Laboratory High School, supposedly the best high school in the United States, and the last place I ever graduated from, in 1968.

Children of the University’s faculty went there at a big discount, and children of wealthy people sent their kids there at full price. Prospective students had to pass a difficult test to qualify to get in, which I did in 1963, except that I ran away from a dangerous home the next year, June 8, 1964, and there was no money for anything except what I made working two jobs I found during the preceding summer of 1964. 

Not being a child of University faculty, I qualified for no discounts and there was no scholarship for me. I requested and subsequently met with Francis V. Lloyd, Jr., Director of the University’s Lab Schools that September of 1964 to describe my financial and otherwise living situation, asking to be allowed to stay in the school, and that I would repay the impossibly high (at the time) tuition for my freshman year there before I was to graduate in June, I968.

Now 72, as I look back on those hard times for me at fourteen, I imagine that the Director , a very tall man wearing a three-piece-suit with a gold chain with a little gold something hanging from it, about which I had no clue, was privately very amused at my audacity in requesting to see him in the first place; and also probably, to him, my completely unrealistic aspiration to repay my Freshman year’s tuition within the next three years. 

Curious about the man in writing this memory of a moment with him from 1964; I decided to find out a little more about Mr. Lloyd, Jr. He was born in 1914, was about 50 when I met him. He seemed so tall and old at the time, when I was fourteen, but from the perspective today of 72, an age at which I could be his father, he seems less imposing. He had become director of the Laboratory Schools beginning in 1963, the year before we met, to 1970. He died in 1998 at 84, thirty-four years after I spoke to him. I do hope my vengeful act in 1968, four years later when he was fifty-four, was not upsetting to him. They did get their money, and the school was supposed to produce students with independent minds, so maybe partly, he was pleased. I’ll never know, I guess.

But he was deadly serious, I clearly remember; agreed without too much contemplation to my offer, and warned me that I would not be able to graduate without repaying the first year’s money due to the University Bursar’s Tuition Business Office.

Neither of us could know that my immediate future’s cash in order to survive needs would cause me to open a four-foot by four-foot wooden newsstand which  I built with a friend from another high school, a public one, someone whom I met in 1961 and over sixty years later who now lives in a 34-foot sailboat with his wife near Lisbon, Portugal and with whom I am in constant contact.

That newsstand, after we split up owning it 18 months later in 1966, was subsequently renamed Bob’s Newsstand and existed on that corner in Hyde Park for twenty years. It gradually became famous across the United States as a source of more than three thousand periodicals and newspapers from Europe, Israel and across this country, as well. 

After constantly expanding as a wooden structure between 1965 and 1975, and burning down two times without any insurance — it became a brick building in 1975 and later expanded again to its final size of 120 feet by forty feet in 1978, and then closing in 1985 when I was thirty-five.

I ended up my high school career working on the school newspaper for two years, The Midway, helping me decide to become a writer, eventually, nearly four decades later in 2004 after being diagnosed with brain tumors. Also, far earlier, after graduating in June 1968 – and yes, paying back the tuition due – I underwent cancer surgery six months later while a Freshman at the University of Illinois, losing my left jawbone in December 1968.

But between this story’s subject in 1964, my lack of popularity and inoculating baby chickens, and my major surgical operation in 1968, the University’s tuition office decided to begin nagging me for the money, month after month even though I had long since been aware of the consequences to me of not paying the money due before being allowed to graduate. 

Why they decided nagging me month after month, as if that would be a motivation to pay them, at the same time I was receiving positive publicity both in the high school’s newspaper and also in Chicago’s Press as an inspiring entrepreneurial example of self-supporting teenagers, I do not know.

What I do know is that when I was able to put the money together by May 1968, I was so antagonized by the Bursar’s office behavior by that time, that I came up with a manner of repaying them which caused wonderful pandemonium in that office, resulting in a story I later wrote entitled: The Thousand Dollar Bill.

This then, is a quiet little moment while I was a Freshman in Lab School with a big debt hanging over me and no idea what was to be the future ahead of me:

I was in a biology class of perhaps twenty students my Freshman year, where all the classes had small numbers.

When the class began, I had some time after it to talk with the teacher, because I found him to be gentle and soft-spoken. He had black hair, dark eyes, a dark complexion, was quite short, and was endlessly fascinating to me as he taught what he wanted us to know. But some of my classmates compared him to looking like a monkey. He ignored any of that he might have overheard and concentrated on his teaching.

He gradually learned my own hardscrabble situation and was appreciative that I trusted him enough to tell him, and also that I had a long-time interest in science, like: 

Why are things the way they are? 

Will we get to the Moon? (Five years later!)

Why do people look the way they do, meaning height, eye color, hair color? 

Can pygmies in Central Africa give blood transfusions to Scandinavians? (Of course they can!)

Stuff like that.

He responded to my questions in a slow elaborate way that tested my ability to absorb what he had to tell me.

As he grasped my curiosity and unquenchable desire to understand more and more, and that I wasn’t one more bored student marking time in a boring biology class, it was like I was having two biology courses instead of one; but with him alone, I receive a great deal of attention.

He quickly became aware that my clothes were in a different universe than my sharply dressed classmates, who were consumed with current fashion, both the boys and the girls. He knew I dressed for work because right after school, I raced to whatever my current job was. I had two different ones making up the seven days, and I had an old bicycle I’d recently bought from a second-hand store to make me much faster at being able to arrive at work on time.

I too had very dark hair, eyes and olive skin. Where I live today in Wisconsin, I have been repeatedly asked if I’m Armenian, like Racine is the Armenian Capital of the world. That question was never asked of me anywhere in my life, including later trips to Europe, Israel, Jordan, Canada and across America. 

Perceptive, Mr. Boyajian also must have noticed that no one hung out with me before or after class. I think he understood my isolation in that expensive school, and how hard it was for me to be there. He also called on me a lot during class because evidently, he assumed I was paying attention, had done my homework and would know the right answers.

We were studying farms one day, and how everything was connected to everything else on a farm, in orderfor the farm to work as efficiently as possible. We studied cows, horses, lambs, goats and even the chicks who ran around the farm.

One day, several boxes of very yellow noisily chirping baby chicks were waiting for the class. 

A surprise.

Mr. B explained that he wanted us to learn about injecting medicines into animals and the delicacy that required in order to not upset or hurt the animals.

This request was not received well by my classmates and no one raced to get their syringe, fill it with some water, gently grab a baby chick and inject the water while not hurting the chick. This was not a situation that privileged children normally encounter. However, since I had taken bi-weekly allergy shots for five years, from ages five until ten when I refused to go to the guy ever again because my allergies never improved. I was very familiar with how a doctor injects a patient so as to hurt him the least, my having experienced five hundred of them.

I grabbed my chick, because a year earlier I’d already had two chicks, Jacob and Nathan as pets at my home. I was quite confident about holding them. 

When Mr. B requested the students inject their chicks, I alone, apparently, simply raised the loose skin of the chick’s tiny body, held the skin together with one hand while injecting water into the chick’s skin in order to not hurt the tiny creature. Then I raised my hand to show I was done, as we were requested to do. No other hand went up. It was silent in the room. Mr. B seemed uncertain about how to compel his students to do as he asked them.

Then a kid sitting near me stood in front of me with his chick in his hand and pleaded,  

“Please, do mine, too.”

Surprised at this unexpected request, and with my not being popular in any way with my classmates, I silently complied, and then handed to chick back to my squeamish classmate.

At that point, more than a few of the kids around me witnessed this incident, and my willingness to do what all of them didn’t want to do. Suddenly, there was a line in front of me with a whole bunch of kids clutching their squirming baby chicks waiting their turn for me to give the chicks a painless (they must have assumed) injection under the chick’s fine, yellow downy skin.

Since having one kid do all the injecting completely defeated the purpose of giving all the other students an experience in handling small and fragile animals for whatever future purpose Mr. B had in mind that morning, I looked around the room for him, to see what I should do. I was not self-confident like so many of the kids there were, and I wanted some kind of permission to do what they wanted me to do.

That’s when I discovered Mr. B watching me, apparently fascinated at this unexpected turn of events in his classroom. He was smiling that wide smile of his perhaps seeing this development as a kind of laboratory experiment in and of itself.

Then he silently nodded his assent to me that it was OK, that I could go ahead and begin the mass injections, perhaps deciding that mercy for the frightened baby chicks compassionately trumped any other purpose he may have had in mind.

While the aftermath of that unique day in my life in his class did nothing beyond the moments of silent injections to improve my popularity among the other students, who fled Mr. B’s class the moment the bell rang, it was the beginning of a closer relationship between him and me, which passing time later proved to be the more important change in my life in that school.

He talked to me a lot about science and sometimes other things on his mind. I would drop into his classroom during my free periods just to say, “hello”, and if his room was empty, I’d stay, and we’d talk about all kinds of things.

After I graduated and visited the school one day, I learned that some evil someone had secretly entered his classroom after hours when it was filled with various kinds of small creatures and that person killed all of them.

The killer was never discovered and in disgust, Mr. Boyajian quit his job teaching in that supposedly upper-class school, and later opened his corner import store as an alternative profession, since many Armenians were traders and store operators all over the world.

He was a very smart, patient, warm and gentle man. When I think about my years at Lab School, I always think about him, too. For the right student, hungry to learn something worth knowing, he was the perfect teacher.

His obituary is below. I met him in 1964 when I was 14, and I was in continuous sporadic contact with my beloved teacher over forty years. When he died, I was fifty-seven.

Rest in Peace, you lovely man.

Richard J. Boyajian, a biology teacher who also owned Boyajian’s Bazaar on 53rd Street in Hyde Park, died December 23, 2007 in Chicago. He was 84. A WW II veteran and founding member of Chicago’s 57th Street meeting of the Society of Friends, Boyajian became an early environmentalist and taught at South Shore High School and at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for nearly 30 years. In 1980 he opened the 53rd Street Bazaar, drawing on his experience teaching in India to sell international handicrafts. Survivors include his wife Polly Gildersleeve Boyajian, two daughters, a son, and four grandchildren.)

2 Comments »

Comment by Jim Payne

August 10, 2022 @ 5:55 am

Bob, I like how the megaphone of your stories broadcasts the events of your life. Please keep entertaining us by writing more. Your stories have such personal feeling in them.

Comment by Beth

August 11, 2022 @ 8:27 am

Such interesting memories. A sister of mine attended the Lab school for one year. I recall being jealous as they had a pair of wonderful girls basketball coaches, Janice Master john and Pat ?

My sister left after a year because she could not make friends and felt lonely. She said I was lucky to not have gone. Apparently the school was quite Clique. Newcomers were not welcome.

You had a rare experience with Mr. Boyajian, for which I am glad. Great teachers have lifelong impacts far beyond the subjects they teach. Thank you for sharing as it gave me a chance to remember 2 wonderful teachers from my own past. Your stories matter.

Beth

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