I first met Mr. Silvers in 1988-89, as a student in his 3rd grade class. He encouraged me to read endlessly and to share my thoughts on each book by writing reports.
I met Mr. Silvers again in 2017 when I was in graduate school. I was assigned to write a profile piece. I thought of him because I had passed by his house. I sent him a letter reintroducing myself and asking if he'd be interested. He responded saying he knew exactly who I was. And that he'd be honored.
We met several times over the fall of 2017. We exchanged cards occasionally ever since. Like every great teacher in my life I wish I had told Lew how much they meant.
Below is the profile piece I turned in. It's not going to win a Pulitzer, but Lew said it brought him a smile.
A PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AND A YOUNG MAN
Nearly thirty years ago, Mr. Silvers welcomed me into his third grade classroom.
Today, Lew Silvers is welcoming me into his home.
His small cottage stands down a leaf-strewn street of ever-expanding Palo Alto mansions, its walls bursting with life. A patchwork of paintings greet me within; pastel landscapes dancing upon canvas; vibrant hydrangeas blooming from blue vases; even Queen Elizabeth looks on, her pensive gaze repeated in a dozen acrylic portraits. Only inches of these walls remain undecorated.
As I take in the art a clock’s chime fills the living room. “That’s the heartbeat of the house,” Lew says.
Yet I quickly sense that he is this home’s musical soul.
His blue paisley shirt matches his painted vases. I try to study my old teacher but he moves fast for an old man. Lew still exudes the energy that commanded a classroom.
As he leads me through his home I find my myself moving backwards in time.
I’m no longer on the cusp of forty. Instead, I’m taking a seat at my school desk, awed by the classroom’s walls. Mr. Silvers is teaching us about Van Gogh and Chagall, his enthusiasm infectious, his thin body exploding with joy,
Now, Lew’s hands still dance about, pointing out his own favorite creations. A pastel forest of neon trees hangs on his wall, purple trunks piercing emerald canopies. Citrus fruits lay nestled in sapphire bowls, formed by surreal brushstrokes and delicate swirls. A fresh canvas sits in an easel nearby, a pencil outline of flowers he’ll soon bring to life.
Afternoon light fills the sitting room, falls warm on our faces. The soft couch embraces me. Lew’s wooden chair squeaks as he settles in. Behind tortoise shell frame glasses, his eyes study my face, mapping the path of the past thirty years. I’ve grown up, grown a beard, grown cynical in so many ways. Yet somehow the years on Lew’s face all seem to fade right away.
“Wonderful!” he exclaims, when I tell him I’ve been an educator for the last decade. Despite painting for most of his life, he confides: “Those years at the chalk board mean much more than the ones at the easel. And how I miss them!”
We trade a few laughs of our scraps in the educational trenches. When he hears I taught elementary school for two years, his eyes gleam. “The most important thing for children is self-esteem,” he says, nodding.
Thinking back, I can see how his classroom put that philosophy in action. Mr. Silvers encouraged us to paint, to write, to share our feelings in letters and journals. Somehow, he always found the time to write us a thoughtful response.
Most of all, Mr. Silvers challenged us to read.
New books were brought each month, our names written on paper, rubber bands keeping the stacks of stories together. He asked us to think and reflect. Turned reading into a fun challenge. For each book we finished he asked for a report. What did we like? What did we learn? What new words had we discovered?
Mr. Silvers offered up a prize: the three students with the most book reports would get a free lunch. A pizza, a soda, and a ride in his red convertible.
I remember reading and writing and falling in love with words. And I still remember the wind in my hair. Can still feel the rumble of the old Volkswagen Rabbit, its sputtering engine ferrying us to the promised pizzeria. I had come in third place, but I still got the prize. Few things since have tasted better than that slice of pepperoni pizza. It was the first time my writing earned me a meal.
Only now, as a teacher, have I have realized how much extra work Lew took on.
Like his classroom, Lew’s home recaptures the best of his childhood’s delights. Every end table holds its own stack of books, from science and history, to literature and art. Every space is filled with an opportunity to learn. It’s a joy that has defined Lew’s life.
“There was a wealth of theatre,” Lew says, of growing up in the Bronx. “A wealth of culture and the arts.”
He saw the original Oklahoma! in 1943. He spent his sixteenth birthday at the Broadway run of On the Town. The bronze doors and domed ceilings of Loew’s Paradise Theater were just a short walk away. “It was a real movie palace!”
When I ask Lew if he has a favorite actor his wooden chair can no longer contain him. “Oh, you have no idea what you’ve opened,” he laughs, ushering me towards the bathroom.
Like his sitting room and his living room, this bathroom is covered in art. There’s a playbill from 1930’s musical operetta The Vagabond King. A publicity still from 1940’s New Moon. A headshot of a smiling starlet clutching a black cat dressed in a dapper straw hat. Dozens of movie posters and photos all show the same woman: a starlet of the silver screen, Jeanette MacDonald.
“In this house, we don’t go to the john, we go to the Jeanette,” he says. “I’ve been interested in her since I was 7 years old and saw Rose Marie.”
I can’t help but smile when I realize Lew’s passion didn’t stop at painting and books. It was the golden age of Hollywood, after all. It’s easy to see Lew looking up at the silver screen and falling in love Jeanette MacDonald.
And yet, despite a childhood rich in culture and art, Lew’s youth was not without strife. His father grew up poor and feared the family’s money could easily disappear. He refused to pay for heating, leaving Lew’s mother to boil bathwater on the stove. Lew’s twin brother Willys took an interest in sports and science. “Twins are separate,” Lew says, with a hint of frustration, “but often people treat them the same.”
When Lew and his siblings reflect on their childhood, he admits: “It’s amazing what we agree about, but more amazing what we don’t agree on.”
While some occasionally voice frustration at their childhood, Lew seems to have let it go. He crosses his legs and pauses. Behind him, the window looks out on a patio filling with the first colors of autumn. “There’s no such thing as a functional family,” Lew muses, the smile returning to his face. “We’re all dysfunctional!”
Although the Silvers were secular, there were few other Jews in the Bronx. During the war years, Lew felt like an outsider. The walk to Bronx PS 91 took him past a parochial school, where kids sometimes threw rocks and shouted: “Christ killer!”
When Lew told his mom, she replied: “Tell them the truth: Jesus was a Jew.”
Lew held his tongue. “I worried the rocks would get bigger,” he laughs.
Education was important to the Silvers family. To Lew’s father, it was also a means to get ahead. He’d made it to Cornell thanks to his time at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture School, a rigorous private academy that emphasized Jewish teaching but dismissed the mysticism. Lew’s father wanted the same strong foundation for his children. Despite his atheism, he saw value in sending Lew to temple.
“I lasted three weeks,” Lew says, waving his hand. “It was too structured. Too much Hebrew.”
Lew’s education became a fusion of his loves. He studied literature at Bard, earned a Masters in Art Education at NYU, and pursued postgraduate work at Stanford. He settled in Palo Alto during the sixties, among the Day-Glo haze of the Merry Pranksters and the acid tests on Perry Lane. If I squint, I can still see the hint of those colors here in Lew’s art.
Little remains from those summers of love in this neighborhood now. Lew’s community has changed, from a sleepy college town to the Silicon Valley’s wealthy back yard. Lew’s humble bungalow now sits just blocks from Mark Zuckerberg’s sprawling compound. It shares the same zip code with Steve Jobs’ estate and a founder of Google. Lew could sell his house for a few million, but he shrugs off any thought of cashing out.
“We’ll have an open house when I die,” he says with a grin. “My old students can come and take all the art they can carry.”
After twenty-eight years of teaching, Lew retired at age sixty. My class threw him his last school party. Like the walls of his classroom, he filled the decades since with his colorful passions; with art showings at local galleries; with books on his favorite subjects, Walter Isaacson’s study of da Vinci, or a biography of the love affair between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
At ninety, Lew’s mind is still sharp, his language precise. Somehow, his enthusiasm seems more contagious than ever. For a moment, I wonder if the long years really happened. Are we both dreaming we’ve grown older?
When I left Lew’s classroom, I had a vague sense that something had changed. With his help I had grown to love reading and writing. When I struggled with self-esteem, I remembered his letters. When I struggle with my own teaching career, I remember his impact.
Sometimes, my life feels like a maze of mistakes and wrong turns. Often, I wonder how I’ve hit forty with so little to show. Yet now, in this moment, I can trace a straight path back to a classroom where I first learned what a great teacher could do. In this moment it all seems to make sense.
“I know I didn’t win them all,” Lew wrote in his letter when we first reconnected this summer. “But how I appreciate that there were some like you!” Sitting with him now, I struggle to convey my heart’s gratitude.
Then, remembering something, Lew excuses himself. He returns to the sitting room clutching some paper yellowed with age.
“You wrote this,” he says, and reads my third-grade words. I had wanted to tell him he was my favorite teacher. I wanted to be sure he knew I liked his class.
We share a laugh, share this moment that unites us in time, an artist and an educator, a teacher and his student.