If you Google “Oscar Hijuelos,” you will find articles that praise him for being a pioneer of Latino immigration writing. While Oscar’s writing is amazing and should be admired for its beauty and veracity, it is his teaching for which I am truly grateful.
Oscar won a Pulitzer Prize, had a book made into a movie and was an internationally renowned writer, and yet he chose to spend the Spring semester at Duke every year painstakingly reading every student’s work and writing illegible comments beside each paragraph. I never got the chance to ask Oscar why he decided to teach at Duke, but I would imagine that the answer goes something like this: He wanted to spread the passion for writing that burned in him—to help give structure to the students who, like him, have amazing stories to tell. Oscar loved writing, and he wanted to share that with others.
His most amazing talent is that which is present in all great teachers; he had the ability not only to teach us how to write, but also to teach us to want to continually learn how to write—he awoke our minds to a new, exciting passion. We will always reach for more.
On my first day of class with Oscar, I found a bumbling, disorganized man at the head of the table dumping out the contents of his leather bag—mouth spray, some pens, several library books and a disorganized stack of papers. He chuckled and said something like, “Holy Cow! This is a mess. Let’s all just go home. We all have spring fever anyway.” His somewhat awkward behavior and words drew nervous laughter from the students. By the end of my first semester with Oscar, his quirky jokes were just one element of his class that I learned to love.
You see, despite his playfulness, Oscar was a commander of the English language and was passionate about the difference between good and bad writing. Oscar often would complain about the headaches, which were caused by the horrendous (popular) novels he was trying to read. He instilled, some would say hammered, this critical writing and reading into his students, but his passion for teaching and for his students was always evident. He would take so much time and care with each student’s writing (he jokingly called it tender loving care). Every word, comma, phrase and student mattered to him, and in time they mattered to us.
Oscar gave his students tools for life. His lessons about writing will not fade, but instead they will continue through his students. Oscar’s ideas influence even the words that I write today. Each time I write is a conversation with Oscar as I listen to his advice on every word, comma and phrase. So although I knew him for a very short time, I will continue to get to know him every time I write.
At the end of my senior year, Oscar wrote a brief note to me in a copy of his memoir. He ended the note by saying, “Don’t make the same knuckle brained mistakes I did.” I always find that line so ironic, because I would love to be a successful writer and professor like Oscar.
But the saddest part of writing this article is that it is not going to be covered in Oscar’s red ink. I am not going to hear Oscar’s inquisitive voice asking me why I used the word “love” so many times. Oscar will never look at me and say, “You have to tighten up that sentence in the second paragraph… It is like you are running up hill while smoking a cigarette. You have to be careful with this kind of thing.” But the beautiful thing is that he doesn’t need to, his words are entrenched in my mind—the lessons that he taught me over the years will continue to influence me whether I am writing my own memoir or reading a novel. I will always hear Oscar’s voice in the back of my head… “Watch out for that repetition of structures, sounds and words.” And with the guidance that Oscar has given me for the rest of my life, hopefully I will make some of the same knuckle brained mistakes that he made.
Addison Corriher, Trinity ’13, is the former photography editor for Towerview Magazine and a former photographer for The Chronicle.