LAST Sept. 26, Sunday at 8 pm, a number of us gathered online upon the invitation of D.M. Reyes, poet and assistant professor at the Department of English of the Ateneo de Manila University, to pay tribute to Emmanuel “Eric” S. Torres. What we had in common—the mix of artists, writers, poets, and teachers, including National Artist Virgilio Almario—was that our lives had been touched by Prof. Torres, or ET, or simply “Sir” as we knew him—as a colleague, poetry teacher, art mentor. In my case, he was the English teacher who changed my life and made me realize, albeit belatedly, that writing for a living was my true calling. He taught me how to write.
Sir died on 13 September 2021 at the age of 89. He was the founding curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery, and a former professor at the Department of English. He was a poet and author of acclaimed art books (notably Kayamanan: 77 Paintings from The Central Bank Collection, published 1981, which received the Manila Critics Circle and Gintong Aklat awards in 1982). His three volumes of poetry—Angels and Fugitives (1966), Shapes of Silence (1972), and The Smile on Smokey Mountain (1991)—contained impossibly elegant words strung together with ease, insight, and authority.
After graduating from the Ateneo in 1954, Prof. Torres would head to the Iowa State University as a Fulbright scholar, then come home to teach at the Ateneo from 1958 until his retirement in 2003. He was named one of the country’s Ten Outstanding Young Men in 1961, and received the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature four times, all for his poetry.
As the moving force behind the Ateneo Art Gallery until he retired, he turned the place into a literal treasure trove of Filipino modern masterpieces, including a rare, dazzling collection of works by Fernando Zobel. When the beautiful Areté, the creative hub of the university, was built, it included the Emmanuel Torres Literary Arts Room.
I knew zilch about Prof. Torres when I landed in his freshman English class in June 1982. Coming from a Catholic all-girls school where we were even more sheltered than we thought, I had no clue about what Prof. Torres had accomplished and contributed to the arts; I didn’t even know we were the English honors section until a good month or so into the semester!
Any notions about him being a benign, bespectacled man were shattered when his sarcasm ripped you to sorry shreds
I had loved and did well in writing even in high school, but I never saw it as a discipline with clear, inviolable rules until I was in Prof. Torres’ classroom on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 7:30. Any notions about him being a benign, bespectacled man were shattered within the first couple of weeks, when his sarcasm ripped you to sorry shreds, and his loud reprimands would reverberate down Berchmans Hall, striking fear even in the hearts of students from other sections.
There was that memorable day when the bell rang while Prof. Torres was in mid-sentence, and nobody moved a muscle—except a new student, a girl obviously in a hurry to head elsewhere. Without looking at her, the professor shouted, “Sit down, XXXX, I am not finished talking”—and continued making his point. I never saw her again after that day.
In the days before the personal computer, when everybody had to bang out their weekly compositions on a typewriter, Prof. Torres was obsessed with the written outline and rough draft of your piece that you had to submit stapled to your final paper; no rough draft, no grade. It was indubitable proof that you wrote it yourself, and he wanted to see how you agonized over the process. His bible was the slim, brilliant volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, and we went over each rule with a fine-tooth comb. His favorite: “Omit needless words.” I would fall asleep thinking about dangling modifiers and mixed metaphors.
Used to the juvenile, stream-of-consciousness “Dear Diary” scribbling of my adolescence, I didn’t at first see the point of the rough draft exercise—until, in a matter of weeks, I began to realize how Prof. Torres was trimming, refining, and streamlining our work into pieces of unexpected brevity and leanness. He was sharpening our English into a sharp, shining weapon.
It was a lesson I learned the hard way, though. After he asked us to choose a topic for our final term paper and submit an outline, I went a little crazy and turned in a two-page disaster on Filipino lower mythology—you know, aswang, tiyanak, and all that fun stuff—that didn’t pass muster. “It’s never easy to organize your thoughts,” he declared in class. “Honasan, for example, FAILED MISERABLY in her attempt.” Those capital letters represent how loudly he said those two words, and my heart sank like a rock down to the pit of my stomach.
After crying—sobbing!—over the failure, I resolved, with little rancor, to prove to Prof. Torres that he was wrong. By that point, I had sensed that I was in the presence of genius, and it had become my young life’s mission to soak up everything the good professor taught—and to earn his approval. He asked for a weekly essay, and after a few initial stumbles, I aced most of them, collecting the graded sheets like trophies. Because most of the references for my term paper were in the Rizal Library’s Special Collections and couldn’t be taken out, I spent many Saturday mornings with my nose buried in books by Maximo Ramos, the writer considered the Dean of Philippine Lower Mythology (and who, I later learned, died two years after our college graduation).
In the meantime, Prof. Torres took us on a number of adventures. There were the books: Voltaire’s Candide, George Orwell’s 1984, and most unforgettable, Leon Ma. Guerrero’s translations of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. I will never forget laughing in class as we dissected, word for word, Rizal’s incisive, hilarious description of Doña Victorina. It was a revelation on many levels—on the power of well-written prose, the skill of both the author and the translator, and the timeless impact of good English.
One day, he asked each of us to bring a copy of the school organ and a red pen—and decided to spend the entire class proofreading articles
As for his naughtier side: Prof. Torres complained constantly about the bad editing in the school’s organ, the Guidon. One day, he asked each of us to bring a copy and a red pen—and decided to spend the entire class proofreading articles. He then asked one of my classmates, Lea Valencia, to gift-wrap the bloody lot and deliver it to the Guidon office. “So it was yooooooou,” a friend on the Guidon staff exclaimed in horror a couple of years later, when I confessed that I had been part of that evil exercise.
Then there were visits to his sanctum sanctorum, the Ateneo Art Gallery, then located under the library, a pristine, brightly-lit wonderland of stuff I had never seen before. It always struck me as such an otherworldly place, with unusual sculptures—J. Elizalde Navarro’s fascinating Homage to Dodjie Laurel comes to mind—and huge canvases full of dynamic brushstrokes; Jose Joya’s 1958 oil on canvas Granadean Arabesque was an explosion of yellow light and thick impastos that always stopped me in my tracks, even years later, when I would drop by to say hello to the professor after I had graduated. Because Sir was into the social realists, this was also where I first met the likes of Pablo Baens Santos, Antipas Delotavo, and Edgar Talusan Fernandez. Printmaker Virgilio “Pandy” Aviado spoke to our class (an English class, remember) about printmaking. Then again, it was also in this class that I first saw Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, because Sir was also a lover of classic cinema as well as music.
I skipped Prof. Torres’ class only once the entire school year, and I asked permission to do it—because I had also fallen in love with theater, and was performing Bienvenido Noriega Jr.’s Bayan-Bayanan in a school in Manila one morning along with Filipino teacher Joey Ocampo’s theater troupe. Surprisingly, Prof. Torres was accommodating, recalling his long-time Ateneo colleague, the actor, director, and poet Rolando Tinio, later a National Artist for Theater. “Break a leg,” Sir told me. Many years later, I would get the chance to share the stage with Tinio in a Dulaang UP production, and when I brought up Prof. Torres, Tinio retorted, “He’s brilliant—and so mataray!”
Oh, and that aswang term paper? He gave me an A+, in one of the happiest moments of my student life.
I continued to visit Prof. Torres in the gallery and even in his home in Palm Village, Makati after I had graduated from my pre-med degree, bringing fruits and other offerings for this health buff. He had been such an influence, I actually took masteral units in art history in the University of the Philippines after I had begun working as a journalist, perhaps with the intention of becoming an art critic or specializing in that field. Sir was extremely generous with writing letters of recommendation for me to every imaginable scholarship-giving body in town, from Fulbright to East West and even Reuters. Unfortunately, in spite of the glowing words of a heavyweight intellectual, my own scholarly qualifications proved inadequate, as everybody turned me down. I guess I was never meant to pursue higher learning—at least, not in a school.
Oh, and that aswang term paper? He gave me an A+, in one of the happiest moments of my student life
I wish this story had a happier ending, and I could say that I kept in touch with my teacher through the years—but I didn’t. At one point, I stopped, and life happened. I would hear about Sir from friends and colleagues, or I would send word through his long-time, loyal secretary of over 30 years, Yoly Arambulo, if I happened by Ateneo after he had retired. And then, the news of his passing, the regret, and the renewed resolve to stay in touch with the people in our lives, while we still can.
Even before the pandemic, I would be asked to give short writing workshops on basic English style and grammar in my former offices. When COVID-19 initially cut down my work and income, I decided to make it a regular online webinar.
I would wave my copy of Strunk and White at the screen, warn against dangling modifiers and needless words, and beg my workshop participants to give the English language the respect it deserves.
Writing is difficult, they tell me often. How I wish I could make them understand what it’s like to swoon over the perfection of a well-written sentence, or a masterfully placed word. I wish I could show them, in a couple of workshop hours, how to put together a good outline, write in white heat, edit in cold blood, and relish the feeling of turning in good work.
I try, but I’m not my English teacher. And there will never be anyone else like him.