Return to Sender - A farewell tribute to my mentor, Will Hochman

postmater@XXXX:  “Your message to XXXXX couldn’t be delivered.” Annoyed, I checked the address and thought I’d added a period where I shouldn’t have—I re-sent. It bounced back. Now even more annoyed, I pulled up the university directory. Not in there. What the hell? Did he retire and not tell me? I pulled up my Facebook. Did he unfriend me? What is going on?! I started Googling . . . and my heart tightened when I came upon it—the memorial announcement. There had been a memorial service six days before for his unexpected passing in June. This was October 26th. I got up from my desk and walked across campus in a daze. I’ve been a little off-the-grid these past couple of years. I have a Facebook account that I post to when my daughter has a fundraiser or check when my spam email account tells me someone has tagged me in something, so I missed the announcement.

I know Will Hochman impacted many of his students’ lives. I am one of the many, but . . . I just can’t not write a thank you goodbye tribute. Will was there for me at every academic and professional milestone of my adult life—literally. In fact, that’s why I was writing to him—I had been sharing a story with a colleague about how my mentor had helped me find my voice with an in-class messaging program. At the time, I couldn’t think of the name of the program, so I was writing to ask.
I started undergrad a little late. I was already married and a new mom when I landed in his Comp 102 class—that was twenty four years ago. Daedalus Interchange. That was the name of the program. It came to me out of the blue along with so many other memories. I woke up this morning around
12:45—ish. By 1:30, I knew I wasn’t falling back to sleep anytime soon, so I got the coffee going and started reading the email exchanges over the years. On the two accounts that are still active, they date back to 2006.

Will once said to me, “Men cling to you like flies to shit . . . but I’ve never thought of you that way.” Ouch. At the time, I needed to hear it. I was in a slump. Ready to give up writing altogether because I felt like a fraud. I had said something to the effect that the only reason my writing received any attention was because men wanted to get into my pants.  And I believed it. Thankfully, Will never held back. He always told you exactly what he thought of your writing—or your actions. Brutal honesty was his trademark, which is what made his praise so gratifying. Will wrote recommendation letters for me when I was applying to the NY State Summer Writer’s Institute, when I was applying to my MFA program, when I was applying to my Ph.D. program. Will reviewed my manuscript for my master’s thesis. He wrote the blurb to my second book. When it was time for me to defend my dissertation, he said he would “bust knees” if anyone gave me a hard time. And when my oldest daughter, Keila, found her way to Columbia for her Master’s, he said he was a “proud grandpa.” While I was there visiting her, he even drove in from Connecticut to treat us to matzo ball soup.

I don’t think my story is atypical. He was a caring, supportive (and yes, occasionally brutally honest) professor. What might be atypical is that I was a low SES first generation college student—a woman—Hispanic—mother at nineteen—who has somehow managed to stay married, raise two children and climb the academic ladder to the highest rung. I know I couldn’t have done it without Will in my corner. As an undergrad, he pushed me to find my voice—and then own it. He encouraged me to attend the Summer Writer’s Institute even though I balked—“I can’t leave my husband and daughter for four weeks!” But one opportunity always led to another, and Will always made himself available, ready with his signature tough love. I am eternally grateful, and will so dearly miss him.

***One of Will's goals was to be published in the New York Times. On March 11, 2016, he achieved that goal with "Nature Plays a Touch Game."


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