They’re just words!

To educate

“Well, I don’t get what the big deal is. They’re just words!” I was floored. I was a teacher at a small private school. Teaching World Literature. We were studying Dante’s Inferno out of Norton’s Anthology of World Literature. Three students turned in papers quoting, verbatim, sections of the editor’s comments that introduced the work. Word for word. 10thGraders. Been writing papers for about 6 years now. Introduced to the concept of plagiarism many times. We discussed it ad nauseum in a lecture I gave. We even worked on exercises together, explaining how to footnote, how to use the MLA method, how to quote within your paper. And clearly, in bold, at the bottom of the assignment sheet, handed out when the paper was first assigned, was typed: “Plagiarism = O”

I couldn’t have been more clear.

But still it happened. The repercussions are simple, right? A zero to each offender. Nope. Two of the three students were board member’s children. A zero could not be “given” to a board member’s child. Whether she earned it or not. Unacceptable. The head of our Upper School questioned me. “Maybe you weren’t clear about just what plagiarism really is.” The Headmaster called a meeting with the parents and me to “sort all of this out.” I was stunned. The infraction was as clear as day. The proof irrefutable.

I received threatening phone calls from a board member’s wife. She’d have my job before her daughter “earned” a zero. One of my colleague’s called me stubborn. And then a parent of a child that wasn’t even involved called me for a conference. Prepared to talk to her about her son’s progress (he was doing beautifully) we sat down. All she wanted to talk about was this “silly business” about plagiarism and she wanted to know why in the world these girls were in so much trouble. I told her this was between me and the girls. She wouldn’t back down. I told her, “Well, for one thing it’s stealing.” “Stealing what?” she asked. I said, “Another person’s thoughts, opinions, words.”

“Well, I don’t get what the big deal is. They’re just words!”

I don’t have much of a poker face. My jaw must have dropped to my knees. There was no reasoning with her. And I sat there thinking, I get it. These entitled, privileged people, used to getting their way, used to sneaking ideas by bosses to get ahead. They just won’t get it. Words don’t have a monetary value to them. And that’s how it has to be explained to them. With a dollar sign. So just like Martin Luther King in his “I Have A Dream” speech laden with monetary references I explained copyright infringements, how being published is like a patent. She nodded slightly and said, “ohhhhh.” But I don’t think she really got it.

Bottom line? Precious Suzy doesn’t cheat. Precious Sally doesn’t fail. But I fought to keep the zero grade and thanks to an incredibly supportive department head it stuck to their precious grade reports. Needless to say, the rest of the school year was a living hell. I received no respect from the parents and as a result that attitude trickled into the classroom and spread like an insidious virus to the other students.

Words are a precious commodity. Especially when combined to create new and intelligent, thought provoking opinion. Protect your words. Protect the words of others. Respect their value.

8 Comments

Filed under Plagiarism, Teaching

8 responses to “They’re just words!

  1. I hate hearing stories like this because I know just how much power the children of board members often end up holding. One of my neighbors was a regular substitute English teacher at a well respected private school in the area until she refused to allow students in her class to leave class early without reason, talk, and generally misbehave. One of the students was the daughter of a board member, and my neighbor was forbidden to substitute at that school again, even though she’d been doing so for the better part of a decade and was well known to most of the staff.
    Similarly, when I was in school, there was one boy who consistently bullied myself and others, even to the point of trying to get involved in fist fights. The teachers wanted him expelled, but instead his board member father simply switched him to a different school for a year (after several years of complaints)- and then brought him right back.

    • theycallmejane

      I know. It is so sad when parents who pay for private education think that they are paying for good grades. What they are paying for is the opportunity for a stronger education for their child. It only works if their child applies themself, thus benefiting from the experience.

  2. Wow. I am proud of you! It is the teachers (and faculty) that bow down to the money and influence of the parents on the board that help to demonstrate that it is money and power that will get you out of doing what is right for the rest of your life. I remember 3 kids in my senior class who had the highest grades cheated on some test and were suspended…one of them lost her scholarship to Brown. It was a big deal, but then again so is cheating.

  3. Yes, and plagiarism is cheating and stealing. I just couldn’t believe the parent that said to me, “They’re just words!” To this day, it still stuns me.

  4. Are you kidding me?!
    Ok, I take that back. I went to a Catholic school, and I watched my classmates fail, blame the teacher, and get him fired. He was new, so no one fought for him. Stupid rich kids. I’m glad you stuck to your guns.

  5. evilme

    Hi,
    I’m glad you stuck to your guns. One of the other things I’ve been seeing a lot of as my kids get older is parents helping too much with homework and assignments. If the child doesn’t learn how to deal with the work as it gets harder and they get older then one day when mum isn’t their to help it will all come crashing down on their heads! If the kids aren’t coping the teacher needs to know – it shouldn’t be covered up by the parents re-doing their homework for them. Teachers aren’t silly either – they know when someones homework is of a standard higher than the student is capable of.

  6. Pingback: Top 20 Songs Played On My iPod – Or, I Got Nothin’ For Tunes For Tuesday « Theycallmejane's Blog

  7. Symme

    My middle school science teacher was on Oprah because she had failed so many students for plagiarizing on a project. I’ve always tried to be careful when I research and to not use the phrases in my papers verbatim; I’ve always tried to use my own words and phrase it in my voice. Although none of my work has been stolen from me *fingers crossed*, I can empathize with the authors or artists whose work has. I know it’s frustrating and I try to keep my papers true to my voice.

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