October 9, 2008
Every now and then, if you’re fortunate enough- you cross paths with a remarkable person that makes quite an impact on your life. In some way or another, they make the world a better place by simply being themselves. Over the years there have been a precious few that hold that distinction for me, but this is dedicated to one in particular.
Almost everyone that walked the hallways of Uniondale High School can recall a teacher by the name of Mr. Chu. I say this because there were plenty of students who were not ‘officially’ enrolled in his class that still came away with a sufficient knowledge of Photography. Way before I learned what purpose an aperture served or how to manipulate ambient light- I learned what it was like to be yourself and embrace it. Chu Man, as he was so oft referred to as- was by far the coolest teacher in that institution. Everyone loved him, and I believe it had a lot to do with him just being himself. He possessed such a genuine manner that was never forced. Some teachers are totally removed from the student experience by default. They form quick opinions of whom they perceive as rabble-rousers, make snap judgments and decide that there is nothing they haven’t seen or heard during their tenure. But Mr. Chu was different. He was never so world-weary that he tuned out what was relevant. Trust me. He may have been the only staff member at the time who knew Hip-Hop even had a pulse before it got all “blinged out”. He seemed to understand that teaching was an exchange rather than a one-way street. We learned from him, and he from us.
There are some teachers who immediately want to show you who’s boss. Then there are those who try so hard to be cool it is transparently phony. Neither was his style. He somehow walked a line of his own with dexterity…and made it look effortless. Mr. Chu had an open-door policy. He treated troublemakers and straight-A students with impartiality. (Yours truly fell somewhere in between.) I think he was much more comfortable in the knowledge that droves of kids opted for his class, rather than leave school grounds to find inevitable trouble. I witnessed firsthand what some may classify as the most “unreachable” of pupils take a heartfelt interest in learning something new. And it was all because of Mr. Chu. We were accepted without being molded by an iron fist. He had our respect without ever having to demand it. That in itself was an estimable art form.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m eulogizing someone that is no longer with us. He is still very much alive, and thanks to the great age of online social networking, sharing other aspects of his life with Alums who admire him just as much- if not more than in the bygone days of Photo lab. That photography lab is now defunct. It has been transformed into what I can only call a depressingly modernized box. Four walls, devoid of the spirit that once inhabited that space. And Mac computers everywhere. Copy. Paste. Print. Gone are the days of having your 35mm camera for the weekend. The darkroom, the chemicals and the indescribable fulfillment that came with watching a perfect image materialize from a once watery tray.
The soul of that place is gone. Chu all but took it with him upon retirement. To many of us, he was that studio. But what I hold near and dear are the memories that were constructed in that studio. I have a myriad of black and white photos that capture my youth, my friendships and my peculiar fashion choices from back then. All those seemingly minuscule things that in retrospect; have a great deal to do with the person I am today. I consider myself blessed to have ever been in his class- where he taught us the importance of being true to oneself, by none other than example. The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. Without realizing it, we learned to develop character along with those negatives. He may never know just where his influence stops. Truly of a different ilk, I tip my hat in reverence to the Chu Man.
There can never be another.