Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Glasvegas--"It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry" (mp3)
George Harrison--"My Sweet Lord" (mp3)

I met the brother of a cheater the other night. It was very awkward. He had gone through his entire school career and had never had any contact with me whatsoever. I had seen him all night at a social function, hanging out with a bunch of guys I knew, and I had no idea who he was, so when I went up to say goodby to all of them, I was introduced to him.

"Oh,"I said, suddenly understanding, and I looked at all of the other guys and said, "I've never met _____, but _____ and I have a history." He nodded. He knew. His parents, with whom I had several conversations while I was teaching his brother and had gotten to know and to like, had never spoken to me again. All because I had caught his brother cheating, and his brother had been kicked out of school as a result.

His brother had stolen an essay off of the Internet. That's the cheating part. Now, here's the stupid part: the essay he had stolen did not even begin to fit the assignment I had given to my students. It was on the same book; it was on the wrong topic.

Today's teacher, or even a teacher from eight years ago when the infraction occured, is pretty savvy. We all know that basic essay topics on popular school novels are fairly easy to locate and purchase, and so we try to change up the topics, to create some new approach to a novel that can't be easily borrowed from an essay-selling website. The book in question? Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston.

The student I caused to get kicked out went to Sewanee. He is now in law school. He seems to have gotten past it, weathered the storm, overcome his mistake, learned his lesson, etc.

But cheating is not a victimless crime. In the wonderful world of cheating, the person who catches the cheater is, arguably, the one who suffers the most, especially if you are of my generation, when there is little that is more reprehensible than being a "narc." And even if your school has an Honor Code, as ours does, when it comes down to a student actually getting kicked out, when all of the dust settles, even though the entire administration and faculty support you, you are the one who caused the student to get kicked out. Because you turned him in.

It's pretty clear to you, I suppose, that just seeing the brother of the boy who got kicked out has stirred up all kinds of guilt and pain, even though I did the right thing. It is not easy to act in such a way that causes a student to no longer attend the school where you teach and where he attends (or attended).

What we're really talking about here, of course, is a very specific kind of cheating--plagiarism. It is the stealing of someone else's ideas. Vice-president Joe Biden has apparently done it. So have respected historians like Stephen Ambrose and Barbara Tuchman. But those have been passed off as a careless handling of sources, a rush to get a book to press.

But then countless numbers of other students since the Internet have also made such an act a relatively easy matter of cutting and pasting. Which is certainly not to blame the Internet. Ease of accessibility cannot be considered the primary cause of crime, I hope. More likely, it is simply human nature being human nature, in this case, a boy who didn't read the book or who didn't think he had time to write the paper taking the easiest way out.

And it must be said that most teachers do not go looking for cheaters. The student practically has to hoist the large fish of his infraction and slap us in the face with it in order to get us to act. His mistake must be egregious. He must do something that is so out of character that it sends us looking. In the case of this school, it must be his 2nd, or even 3rd, offense, depending on the timing.

But when you were the teacher, none of that is any consolation. You are doomed to face an eternal awkwardness anytime the situation comes up. Should the student in question come back to visit, every other teacher is free to welcome him and to ask how he is doing and to help him reconnect with his old school, but you, you must hang back, perhaps get nothing more than a nod, or perhaps less, just a look of recogntion, because you're the one who pulled the trigger.

Every teacher, perhaps every employer, if he or she works long enough, carries this scar.

George Harrison, of course, was mightily sued when his "My Sweet Lord" was prosecuted as an obvious rip-off of the Shirelles' "He's So Fine."


Thom Anon said...

I had a roommate who got thrown out for hitting the public speaking teacher (among other things, but I think the assault was the last straw.) I always hated that little bastard--the student, not the teacher.

Likewise, dud roommates leave a lasting mark.

PS--Now playing Yim Yames' version of "My Sweet Lord" in honor of that Beatle Cheater.

Billy said...

I'm batting .667 on doing my duty knowing that a kid could get booted. The third was drunk because he'd just found out his girlfriend had chosen to get an abortion, which felt like one of the few times when an adult problem called for (hopefully momentary) an adult escape.

Do I read between the lines correctly that you have guilt and pain, but not regret? Because to me, all of this is about the best of many unpalatable options, and I believe you took the right one.

I didn't see "regret" anywhere in there, but was a little curious.

Bob said...

You're right. I don't really have any regret. I'm sorry that it happened (each time it's happened), but do I wish I hadn't made the decision that I did? No. I do regret what he did.

Your situation with the drinking/abortion seems like one of those right-right decisions we grappled with when Rushworth Kidder was here, but the situation a teacher faces in class, where a student knowingly and willingly plagiarizes (when you take someone else's paper verbatim off of a website, there's little gray area)doesn't leave a whole lot of choice.

troutking said...

If he's so reformed and "learned his lesson" about honesty, how come he's going to law school?

Eh, sorry. Too easy...

Anonymous said...

I have nothing. Just writing here because Bob gave me shit about not writing.

Actually, I knew the kid you're talking about, I think, and I agree that you did the right thing. FWIW.