Recently, I’ve been thinking about death a bit. Maybe it’s my mid-life crisis; at least I’m not wearing gold chains and chasing younger women. I read many Facebook posts lamenting the strain of “adulting” (apparently, mutilating the language comes easy for those struggling with adulting–should we call them adulterers? ). For me, the most difficult aspect of adulthood is confronting mortality. All of my grandparents are dead, and most have been gone for a long time. Too soon, I’ll have to deal with the death of my and my wife’s parents. And in a not-far-enough-away time lurks my own death.
Today, I woke to the news that my first academic mentor, Will Hochman, is dead.
On the first day of my first creative writing class Will entered the room wearing a corduroy sport coat with leather patched elbows. With his receding hairline and ponytail, he looked every bit the creative writing professor. His first words to the class:
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
were William Carlos Williams’ words.
We were sitting in a computerized classroom that he created: the MacLab. His syllabus included a packet about using the computers and formatting the required 3.5″ disk for class, which we would use to submit our final portfolio. He introduced me to computers and writing. One of the course’s texts You’ve Got to Read This introduced me to great works of fiction. How can I thank him for that?
The best complement I can give Will is that he was a great teacher. He taught comp and creative writing, the classes where instructors will sometimes see the worst kinds of student writing. Will could (and did) tell us that some part of our writing was horrible without hurting us. He offered blistering honest critiques with a smile on his face, and you would smile back, even as you acknowledged the bitter truth. I’ve taught all manner of courses for sixteen years, and I appreciate his skill now in a way I couldn’t then.
As I’ve thought about him, I’ve realized that his brutal critiques worked because they were born of kindness. He cared about what we wrote and wanted us to write the best essays, stories, and poems that we could. He didn’t enjoy criticizing us; he enjoyed talking about writing and how to make it better. We sensed his respect for the discipline and that he applied that same respect to our work. He honored class time in a way that few professors did and we loved him for it.
I’ve been fortunate to have many great professors; Will Hochman was one of the first. I wish I could offer eloquent words, but all I want to say is “Damn.”