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An anchor between two worlds

Steve Silverman earlier this week sat at the front of his fourth-grade classroom during a reading exercise, pulled out a crumpled ball of paper and lobbed it at a student.

With their hands stretched skyward, the George Washington Elementary students talked over one another and dove across desks to intercept the errant throws — Silverman’s version of calling on someone to answer a question.

When they became too loud, the 55-year-old teacher told them to quiet down, even though he couldn’t hear a word they were saying.

Silverman has been deaf since he was 28.


“When I did hear, I could tell the difference between productive noise and unproductive noise,” he said. “I miss being able to make that distinction.”

Silverman has spent 20 of his 32-year career with Burbank Unified’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, teaching integrated classes of hearing and deaf students. It was the career he always hoped for.

And when Silverman retires next month, he will leave behind a bit of the change — a bridge between the hearing and deaf worlds — he worked so hard to effect.

Embracing a new path


Raised in the East Bay area of San Francisco, Silverman studied psychology at UC Berkeley. During his junior year he decided to pursue teaching, earning his credential in 1978. He settled into his first job, married and started a family.

His career was brought to a standstill six years later when hearing loss that began at age 19 intensified. A CAT scan revealed tumors growing along the nerve that leads from the brain to the inner ear — a rare genetic disorder in which tumors hamper hearing, balance and vision, among other things.

By the time he turned 28, he was deaf in both ears, unsure whether he’d be able to return to teaching. But after enrolling in a deaf education program at Fresno State University, he discovered a new world of educators, including Carl Kirchner, a pioneer in the field of deaf education.

“People in deaf culture don’t feel they are handicapped; they don’t believe they are disabled,” Silverman said. “They say among themselves they can do everything but hear.”

In 1991, Kirchner invited Silverman to Burbank Unified, where he had launched a revolutionary education model known as the Tripod Program, with deaf and hearing students being taught side-by-side.

But not every hearing family wanted their child in an integrated deaf-hearing classroom.

“At the beginning of each school year … I would get a call or two from a parent who was concerned because her child didn’t initially understand Steve’s speech and was a little disconcerted by the whole thing,” said Jane Clausen, who served as assistant principal at Washington Elementary for nine years.

But Silverman was so charming and forthright that students and parents quickly adjusted, she added.


Signing and Bailey

For the first time in his tenure with Burbank Unified, Silverman this year is teaching a class of all hearing students. He is accompanied through the day by a sign language translator. Silverman speaks to the students, who respond verbally to the translator, who then signs the message back to Silverman.

But many children have picked up the basics. A few are advanced enough to sign directly with their teacher.

“You can communicate with deaf people, not just people who talk,” said 10-year-old Zarina Lopez, who holds the classroom distinction as being the best at sign language.

For a decade, Silverman was accompanied at work by Bailey, a shelter rescue trained as a hearing-aid dog. She had a bed under his desk, but was more likely to be found meandering among the students.

The rules were clear — students could pet Bailey as she passed by, but they were not to call or follow her. Silent reading time was a favorite, Silverman said. The children would sit on the classroom rug, one hand holding an open book, the other petting the dog.

Bailey died last year.

“There may have been more friendly dogs in the history of the world, but I have never met one,” Silverman said.


Silverman’s love of books, his extensive library, has also endeared him to students and colleagues.

“He has always been the person to go to if you were seeking a book [recommendation],” said Patty Ivankovic, a Deaf and Hard of Hearing program specialist. “Steve also kept track of all the books that had deaf characters in them … and would share those with other teachers of the deaf to make sure they were aware.”

Saying goodbye, looking ahead

March 11 will be Silverman’s last day at Washington Elementary. His condition has taxed his health — he tires quickly and is unsteady on his feet. His speech is labored. But that hasn’t stopped him from encouraging, educating and teasing right up until the final bell.

“I see it as lots of little moments that shine, rather than any one big moment,” Silverman said.

His students swear he has a sort of sixth sense — he knows if they are misbehaving even when his back is turned.

“They are children,” Silverman said. “Part of the job of a 9-year-old is to find what the limits are. My job is to keep them clear and consistent.”

On Wednesday, he wrapped up the class with a brief discussion of international affairs, calling on students to share their thoughts on the recent earthquake in New Zealand. And then they were off, grabbing their backpacks and spilling out of the room.

Some paused long enough to flick two fingers up to the eye and then forward in the shape of an ‘L,’ American sign language for “see you later.”