Custodian is sharing his culture

December 30, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Saveliy Liberman strides into the room at Mount Hebron High School with a big smile as he chatters away in his native Russian.

He's short, husky and balding, with brown hair and brown eyes and a face that exudes warmth and instills enthusiasm.

Mr. Saveliy's students, a handful of seniors, stand when he enters the room, the Russian way of showing respect to their teacher.

XTC In Russian, the 45-year-old custodian and former music professor asks the students about their weekend, and asks them to say their names in Russian. He repeats words they have a hard time grasping, grins and prods them to try again.

Until two years ago, when he came to America as a political refugee, Mr. Liberman was a music professor and a student chorus conductor at a prominent teacher's college in Belarus in the former Soviet Union.

He now works as a night-shift custodian at the Ellicott City high school but dreams of one day working as a teacher again.

As he's slowly rebuilding his life and learning the English language, Mount Hebron administrators and teachers have encouraged him to revive his teaching career by leading a 16-week Russian enrichment seminar, which began in November.

The seminar consists of one-hour, after-school classes held every Monday. About 10 teachers and 15 students attend, some to learn the language, others to know more about Russian culture.

"I really like students who come to my class," Mr. Liberman says. "I like to see their eyes when they sing Russian music . . . and when they recognize the music I teach."

He teaches students conversational Russian as well as some vocabulary words. He also teaches them about Russian composers and authors, and about Russian culture and traditions.

Mr. Liberman enjoys teaching the classes, but says, "I'd like to have more hours for talking with them. I have too little hours in the week. When I am in the hallway, I try to talk to them. Sometimes, we joke."

His instructional method is participatory and at times playful.

During one recent class, for example, he pulled out sheet music of Russian folk songs and played the tunes on the piano.

Students listened intently as he taught the songs and repeated verses about trees and cold Russian winters. Mr. Liberman urged them to sing louder, because the noise from the piano overpowered their voices.

Fifteen minutes before the end of class, Mr. Liberman played a recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," a composition that carries parts of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, and bits of a Russian folk song Mr. Liberman had just played on the piano.

Mr. Liberman smiled, beaming proudly that his students, nodding their heads in unison, recognized the folk song he had just taught.

The seminar is a welcome return to the classroom for Mr. Liberman, a Jew who left Belarus two years ago, fearing the rise of anti-Semitism.

He and his family -- his wife, Inessa, a 20-year-old son in college and a 15-year-old daughter in high school -- settled in Owings Mills. In September, he began working as a Mount Hebron custodian.

Mr. Liberman got the job with the help of David Buchoff, a Centennial High School assistant principal who became acquainted with Mr. Liberman at a Jewish community center.

As a custodian, Mr. Liberman works the Tuesday-to-Saturday shift from 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. He is in charge of the rear of the school, including the boys' locker room, the gymnasium and various restrooms.

"He's thrilled to have that job," Mr. Buchoff says. "He feels very proud. He called me up on his first day on the job, and he couldn't believe they gave him the keys to the entire building. He was in tears. In Russia, they give the keys to only the most eminent people."

Mr. Liberman's supervisor, Larry Dorsey, describes him as a hard-working, respectful, dedicated man.

"He's willing to take and learn," Mr. Dorsey says. "He's very dedicated to his job. I was very impressed with him on the first day."

Mr. Liberman liberally credits the friends and strangers who have helped him and his family start a new life, especially Mount Hebron Assistant Principal Connie Lewis and teacher Frank Hortsman, who supported his Russian classes.

He says he is particularly thankful for having the chance to see the light in students' eyes as they learn.

When Mr. Liberman sees his students in the hallway, he takes time to stop and chat with them in Russian.

"He's the most warm, affable guy I've ever met," said Megan Murphy, a 17-year-old senior. "He's just so enthusiastic that his enthusiasm rubs off."

It's something that Mr. Liberman hopes to share with many more students.

For now, he's enjoying his brief stint teaching Russia's culture, language, music and people.

"Only in America do they give the chance for a custodian to meet with students," he said. "Only in America."

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