I read all this plagiarism stuff lately, and I think of this kid I used to know.
In fourth grade, the nuns assigned our class our first real paper. Sister Margaret Mary wrote the names of a mess of countries on slips of scrap and dropped them in a box. You owed her five hundred words on whatever country you pulled. I got the Congo. This paper, it was a big deal, maybe half of our Social Studies grade for the quarter, several class periods spent going over formatting, what a footnote was, how many sources we had to use, how to do a bibliography – the basic blocking and tackling of an academic treatise. Good training I guess, and kudos to Sister Margaret Mary and the other hard-ass nuns that ran Holy Angels School back in the day that they made us do it at that young age.
Thing is, I didn’t think of myself as a writer yet. I was going to be the world’s first shortstop astronaut quarterback. Don Kessinger was doing that leaping pirouette throw-from-the-hole thing for the Cubbies; the moon missions were just getting going, astronauts had a kind of rock star vibe at the time; and I was a budding Green Bay Packers fan, so Bart Starr – Bart the Cool – he was Zeus in my personal pantheon. This paper? It was just homework. And the nuns, in their tender mercies, they sprang this on us in mid-May. My mind was already on vacation, and my body, in those hours it wasn’t imprisoned behind a desk in room 4B, was playing ball.
I did get the first bit done. At least four sources, that was the rule, and only one of them could be an encyclopedia. So I took the bus downtown to the library after school one day, me and Paul Novak, I think, and I grabbed the first four books on the Congo that I saw. Then we went over to Barefoot Charlie’s, which was this weird recycled train-car diner just up Stolp that we weren’t supposed to go to because it was, I dunno, disreputable or something, always these guys hanging out in there that were our dads’ age, but that didn’t look anything like our dads. Our dads looked like Ward Cleaver. These guys, they were from someplace that Ward Cleaver couldn’t point to on a map. So we went to Barefoot Charlie’s, and we sat at the counter ordered a couple Cherry Cokes, this being back when Cherry Coke was the kid equivalent of a cocktail, something the counter guy had to mix up for you, not the pre-packaged crap the Coke people are peddling now, and these alien guys, who had all shut up the second we came in, they were staring holes in our backs. So we sucked our Cherry Cokes down in about ten seconds flat, our fourth-grade rectums puckered up tight, hauled ass out of the place and rode the bus back to white-bread land feeling like a couple of tough guy rebels.
I got home, I put the Congo books on the desk in my room and I went out to shoot baskets in the driveway. (I was also going to be Jerry West, too, maybe, if I could squeeze it in.)
And all of a sudden, it was next Sunday night, Bonanza was over, the paper was due in the morning, and I hadn’t done shit besides check out the books. I can’t say I’d forgotten about it exactly, this was more like denial, but the sudden immediacy of the looming deadline and the probable consequences of failure froze my bowels in a panicked rictus. My parents were pretty strict on the school thing. They knew about the paper. They’d asked about the paper. They’d nodded affectionately at my assurances concerning my steady progress. Now it was due in twelve hours and the school year was ending three days later. I’d be bringing home my report card and a couple of pages of hastily scrawled gibberish with Sister Margaret Mary’s emphatic F- slapped on the cover page on the very eve of that first, sweet full day of freedom. And, on that day, Paul Novak and my other friends would mount their bikes, their baseball gloves hanging from the handlebars , and pedal off to pursue those glorious ad hoc adventures that comprised a boy’s summer glory in those halcyon days before video game controllers and pixels turned the flower of manly youth into couch-bound zombies.
They would ride off to those adventures, and I would not. I was figuring a week, anyway. A week I would spend cleaning the garage and washing the cars and weeding the garden and then cleaning the garage again in a punitive crush of purgatorial labors that would fell Hercules. A week. That week. The first week of summer. It would be like missing the honeymoon. By the time I was paroled, new alliances would have formed, pecking orders would be established, the arbitrary concrete of the informal customs that would govern that summer would have set hard. Somebody else would be playing shortstop. I was destined to three months of right field.
I grabbed the green-and-white spine of the C volume from the set of World Books in the library and trudged up the stairs to my room, hoping I might somehow salvage a C, which was the minimum threshold to escape my pathetic exercise in academic sloth with only a tongue lashing and maybe an extra dollop of yard work.
I was already a reader. It was inevitable in our household. The place was lousy with books and my dad modeled their enjoyment with such infectious enthusiasm that the habit was inevitable. But my reading, aside from the requirements of school, which, to date, had been confined to text books, had mostly been of the fiction variety. Fiction or sports stuff. I used to flip through the encyclopedia all the time, stopping at this picture or that with prurient boyish enthusiasm when I’d hit on a topic like EXECUTIONS, which had this cool old etching of some English guy about to get the ax, or THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, which had that iconic Capra photo of some poor Republican bastard having the top of his head peeled back by a bullet from one of Franco’s goons. But I hadn’t really read much of it.
Until that night.
The entry on the Congo? It was all right there – geography, history, economy. Hell, here was exactly what the Sister Margaret Mary was looking for, except too much of it. It turned out the Congo paper wasn’t just my introduction to academic writing, it was my introduction to word counts. The Congo entry in the World Book? It ran something like eight thousand words.
But I noticed this thing about how it was put together. In sections. And at the beginning of each section, there’d be a sentence or two that sort of summed everything up. If a guy took those sentences and strung them together, that guy’d have a pretty good 500-word paper on the Congo.
That guy’d also be a thief.
I knew that. I knew that instinctively even before Sister Margaret Mary spent the better part of an afternoon preaching about the evils of plagiarism. About how someone who would steal a man’s ideas was lower than someone who would steal a man’s money because money was just a commodity where ideas where the very life blood of mankind’s rise from the apes, our reason being the shining gift that God had given us to separate us from all other creatures. How anyone who would steal ideas was rejecting their own humanity and was lower than a worm.
She was pretty worked up about it, God bless her.
But still, I had to balance being lower than a worm against the possibility of spending the first week of summer cleaning out the garage. It was no contest, really. I rejected my humanity. I rejected the hell out of it.
I cobbled those sentences together, doing a little fourth-grade editing to try to knock off the rough edges. And I wasn’t an idiot. Any word I didn’t know, I looked up and then replaced with equivalent words I did know. I still remember reading the phrase “anti-colonialist fervor” and knowing that would never fly, whatever the hell it was. So I looked up its component parts and stuck in something about the natives being mad at the Belgians – and then I misspelled Belgians on purpose for a little verisimilitude.
There was the footnote thing – we had to have three, and they had to be from three different sources. That led to another cool discovery. These books from the library? They had these things called indexes in the back. You could look up something like anti-colonialism in the index, even if you weren’t quite sure what it meant, and BAM! The index would tell you the exact pages where the author wrote about it. So you flip to those pages, you find a sentence somewhere that seems to fit in with what you’re writing about (or at least with what the World Book people wrote about), and you get to copy that sentence right into your paper, just as long as you put the little number after it.
Bingo bango bongo, I had a paper about the Congo.
The only question left? Would I get away with it. I’d already decided to reject my humanity to escape the draconian consequences of my own failings, so this wasn’t a moral question anymore. It was a practical one. If I got caught at this, forget a week at hard labor. I could kiss summer goodbye. I’d be spending a good chunk of it in summer school, and I’d probably spend the rest cleaning out toilets. With my tongue. You might even be able to look me up in the World Book someday – under EXECUTIONS. I was at the big-boy table now. I was playing for real stakes.
So I thought about it.
They didn’t have World Books in the school library. They had Britannicas. So Sister Margaret Mary couldn’t check the same entry on the Congo, right? With the same sentences? That would be plagiarism. What kind of pond-scum of a human being would do that? I mean grown-up human being. Kids would do it. Kids had summer to protect. Grownups didn’t get summer off, so they didn’t have any reason left to risk their humanity. But could the nuns have another set of encyclopedias? A secret stash of World Books over at the convent that they used to sandbag idea-thieving devils who were playing the Britannica card? I decided I was willing to bet no, but, the next day, when Sister Margret Mary prowled the aisles with her hand out to collect our papers, my hand shook a little as I shoved my chips into the pot. I was four years in to Catholic school. Five, counting kindergarten. I’d learned not to underestimate the sisters’ guile or the elaborate but unseen web of sources by which they could ferret out our every evil no matter how distant from their sight we were during its commission.
I have no words for the gnawing terror of the next few days. I weighed Sister Margaret Mary’s every look and word and intonation for signs of disfavor, but she was a human disfavor factory. I had no way of knowing whether her latest scowl was antecedent to my ruin or just the constant register of her judgment on this heathen assemblage it was her unfortunate duty to shepherd through our daily lessons.
The appointed hour arrived. The last day. She choose to return our papers during those frenzied minutes in which we were charged to empty our desk of everything save those books and supplies that belonged to the school. I was suddenly thankful for my own sloth, for the accumulation of personal and academic detritus that nearly flooded from the confines of my desk, for I was able to keep my head inside it, its hinged lid propped up on my noggin, while I pulled out paper after paper, dropping them one at a time into the bag at my side. If I had been one of those neat souls who completed the task in mere seconds, I would have no option but to sit in my seat, watching Sister Margaret Mary’s approach, ever more convinced of my own doom. I would have broken. When she was a desk or two away, I would have dropped to my knees and confessed my sins, hoping that my pre-emptive confession might somehow blunt the justly earned wrath that was my due.
Instead, I emptied my papers, one at a time, trying not to breathe, not to move, not to exist. Sister Margaret Mary rapped on the lid of my desk. I lowered it. She handed me my paper and walked on.
An A. I not only had gotten away with it, I had pulled off the crime of the century.
But that business about rejecting my humanity? That stuck with me. Ruined that first week of summer some. Well, ruined is a little strong. Colored a few minutes of it here and there with regret, anyway.
In the coming years, the sisters kept after us with the papers, though. And here’s what else I learned. It took me four hours of hard work to plagiarize 500 words, and then cost me three days of gut-ripping anxiety as I awaited my unmasking. In those same four hours, maybe a shade more, I could write my own 500 words. And they’d be mine. I wouldn’t have to be afraid of them.
A few years on, I found out I could even be proud of them.
So here’s what really confuses me about these latest plagiarism imbroglios, the ones with this Quentin Rowan and his Fraken-novel and this other chic whose name escapes me who appears to have lifted a fair bit of stuff from some out of print book that covers a lot of the same ground as her latest offering. Go to any of the various blogs or websites that have cataloged their thievery and take a look at the passages they stole. I didn’t see a single “anti-colonialist fervor” in the lot, not a single passage I would put beyond the skills of any marginally talented writer, much less the sort of transcendent copy that hits you like the first discovery of grace and makes you think “Jesus, I would sell my soul to have written that.”
But they did sell their souls. Both of them. And they sold them cheap, for stuff they could easily have written themselves.
I don’t get it. But if Sister Margaret Mary is somewhere reading this belated confession, I pray she feels me worthy of my humanity