John Chaya, a teacher in the Spotswood High School English Department for the past 19 years, passed away unexpectedly this week. He was only 51. He had been a coach, a sailor, a collector of books, a lover of music, a friend, and a beloved friend, son and brother. The most important thing he was, though, was a teacher, a teacher who believed that his students could learn about the beauty of language and the impact that words in certain combinations could help people grow toward a more humane understanding of the world.
John Chaya loved poetry. He loved Shakespeare's Hamlet. He delighted when students connected with words and made the experience of language their own. His classroom is full of words. They are plastered everywhere on the walls, around his desk, on the board, even on the door. John loved words. They were his best friends, presenting so many opportunities and arrangements, like music.
Poets visited his classroom and were supported and elevated by the discussions they had with his students who read poem every day without judgment or the need to, as Billy Collins said, "Tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means."
John never beat up poetry; he allowed it to breathe, to fall like snowflakes on his students' hair so that they learned to love the English language without feeling like they had to control it in some way.
Teaching is a tough job, especially English teaching. The main idea is to get students to consider abstraction and possibilities, to know that there are several right answers to questions. This idea runs in conflict with our current thinking that there are many paths to an answer, many ways to approach a subject, but there still is, indeed, only one answer. John Chaya was not looking for the answers. He was more interested in the questions and the thinking.
He encouraged his students to take a chance by creating an atmosphere in his classroom that supported diversity of thought and acceptance. His room was a safe place for ideas and for identity. The kids from Spotswood, Milltown, and Helmetta were valued there, as were their efforts to become adult thinkers. He rewarded them with his appreciation and lack of judgment.
I was hoping to see John Chaya next week in Newark at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest gathering of poets on this continent. He regularly attended, and, like one of Plato's students, sat at the feet of the masters. He would leave with a new pile of books which he would read and annotate in his trademark fountain pen, except for the ones the authors had signed. Those went into his collection of works that he treasured. It was as if he had a bit of the soul of the poets on his own shelves in East Brunswick.
I miss you, John Chaya, though I have not seen you for some time. You were special. You knew treasure when you saw it in a jumble of words written by a teenager in suburban central New Jersey. It was like panning for gold in a muddy river. You saw it, though. You had the talent and experience to see the value and to let the light shine.
Here is a poem for you, my friend:
look at love
how it tangles
with the one fallen in love
look at spirit
how it fuses with earth
giving it new life
why are you so busy
with this or that or good or bad
pay attention to how things blend
why talk about all
the known and the unknown
see how the unknown merges into the known
why think separately
of this life and the next
when one is born from the last
look at your heart and tongue
one feels but deaf and dumb
the other speaks in words and signs
look at water and fire
earth and wind
enemies and friends all at once
the wolf and the lamb
the lion and the deer
far away yet together
look at the unity of this
spring and winter
manifested in the equinox
you too must mingle my friends
since the earth and the sky
are mingled just for you and me
be like sugarcane
sweet yet silent
don't get mixed up with bitter words
my beloved grows
right out of my own heart
how much more union can there be
... Rumi, "Life and Death"
Thank you for being here, John. Your voice opened doors.
Former English Supervisor, Spotswood Public Schools