The kindergartners fidgeted, clutching a miniature Armenian flag in one small fist and an American flag in the other as they lined both sides of the red carpet rolled over the sidewalk in front of Mesrobian Armenian School in Pico Rivera.
It was a day for finery, with the girls in pink lace dresses and the boys in navy blue and white. But decorum was in short supply as the children giggled and occasionally swatted each other with a flag while waiting for one of the biggest events of the school year: this week's visit of His Holiness Karekin II, the highest official of the Armenian church outside the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the parochial school milled around under a shade tree, pacing and occasionally craning their necks to look down Paramount Boulevard for the pontiff's caravan. The black robes and headdresses of two archbishops fluttered in the breeze, hemlines lifting to reveal linings of purple satin.
"We are overjoyed that he is with us," said a beaming Archbishop Submat Labajian, a thick gold chain hanging from neck to waist and a square amethyst ring glittering from a pinky finger. "We feel his visit will create enthusiasm in the Armenian community and bring the people closer together."
The interview was cut short by the arrival of Karekin, flanked by more black-robed officials as he emerged from the back seat of a dark Rolls-Royce.
The smiling pontiff stooped to kiss two children at the front of the red carpet, then strolled slowly down the walkway. The kindergartners waved their flags dutifully, and other children threw pink flower petals in Karekin's path.
Security was minimal as photographers and others crowded around Karekin's entourage as it made its way to the athletic field where speeches would be made.
There were welcomes in Armenian and English from the school principal, a school trustee and an archbishop, all of whom spoke from a 2-foot high, Astro-turf covered stage.
A choir sang Armenian folk songs and children recited Armenian poems to applause and foot tapping from the audience.
During the performance, a boy ran up to Karekin's plush chair and gave him a colored drawing signed in carefully printed Armenian letters. A few moments later, a camera-carrying mother urged her son to greet the pontiff so she could take a picture. Karekin graciously complied.
Meanwhile, a troupe of children clad in bright satin tunics took the stage as over-amplified Armenian music was piped through the public address system.
"Armenian ethnic dance," one church official whispered. "It's not done properly, but that's what it is."
Finally, it was time for Karekin. Students released several bags of red, blue and yellow balloons as the pontiff stepped up to the microphone, resting his hands on a black staff tipped by a gold ornament.
The Mesrobian stage was familiar to Karekin, who also visited there during his 1984 trip to California. Karekin is in California on a month-long trip, speaking at the schools and churches of the more than 500,000 Armenians in the state.
"This school has a very special place in my heart and mind," said Karekin, who lives in Beirut. "It had a pioneering role in convincing the people of America that an Armenian school is a possibility and a necessity for our Armenian nation."
The 20-year-old Mesrobian Armenian School, named for the Armenian alphabet and language, has an enrollment of 530 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In addition to the regular curriculum, students are taught the Armenian language and religion.
Karekin proved to be a popular speaker, drawing laughter and applause from students when he bad-mouthed the principal.
"The principal made a mistake when he said I was tired," the pontiff said in a voice that boomed to the back of the field. "I am not tired. When I see all of you, my spirits are lifted."
Speaking to the audience like a benevolent teacher, the pontiff implored the school's 43 graduating seniors to "not confine your student life to the walls of this school and the classroom. Be a student for the rest of your life."
Life should be approached "with a sense of responsibility, participation and engagement," Karekin said. "Once you finish school, the Armenian nation has a place for you."
Among those in the audience was Mesrobian seventh-grader Aida Arzerounian, who said she is glad the pontiff thinks her school is special.
"He took the time to come and visit us," said Arzerounian, 13. "He didn't have to do that."
Sosi Garboushian, 16, who transferred to Mesrobian last year from Torrance High School, said the pontiff's speech "was real interesting."
But more importantly, Garboushian said, she never would have had the chance to see the pontiff if it were not for Mesrobian.
"I decided I wanted to graduate from an Armenian school," she said. "I'm having a lot of fun and learning about my heritage."
After the speeches concluded, the black-robed officials moved to one side, allowing the faithful to pay their respects to the pontiff.
Several women smoothed their hair before approaching Karekin and bending over to kiss his ring. He spoke to the people in Armenian, shaking hands with a patient smile on his face until the there was no one left to bless.