She turned her paper in weeks late, this honor student, this student body president, even though she understood that doing so would cost her points that would lower her grade significantly.
I would remind her nearly every class that she needed to get her work turned in. She would smile that gorgeous smile of hers and assure me that she was working on it.
Never once did she ask questions or ask for help or come see me privately to discuss the paper. She never texted me, never tweeted me, never emailed me, never communicated with me in any form or fashion, even though I made myself available before and after school, and in all of those various forms of communication that are designed specifically for today’s generation of students.
In class, she protested that the rule – No talking about the Kardashians on any level – was too stringent. Why? she asked. Why can’t we refer to them, talk about them? Because we are better and smarter than that, I suggested.
When I asked the honors class to name the last book they read, the most common reply was not To Kill a Mockingbird or Animal Farm. It wasn’t even Twillight. It was – hold onto your readers – Fifty Shades of Grey. One student – a young man – even allowed as how he hadn’t read the book but had watched the movie with his mother.
Did I mention this was an HONORS ENGLISH class?
I kept lowering my expectations but I simply could not get them low enough.
Don’t have students read a book that there isn’t a movie to, was a note the former instructor had offered. They won’t read it. So we started the year with Their Eyes Were Watching God, something some protested as being too feminist. (You might have tried to not turn this into a gender studies class, came the rebuke of one – dare I mention blonde-haired blue-eyed male – student.) But hey, they all liked it better once they discovered Halle Berry starred in the movie version.
One student came to me crying one afternoon: I don’t want to learn about the world and its problems, she wailed. I want to learn English.
What do you suppose writers write about, if not the world? I inquired.
Still no paper.
I reminded students that those who failed to get their work in during the first quarter would not be allowed to continue in Honors Class. I pulled her aside one day after class, inquired if there was some family problem, something outside of class that prevented her from turning in her paper. This was, after all, a fairly simple assignment. A two-page narrative.
No, she said. I’m just a procrastinator.
By the time she got around to turning in her paper, I had graded all the others and returned them. There was one in particular that had stayed with me. A well-written paper that included bits of history about the region that I hadn’t been aware of. The student would have made an “A” on the paper, had she turned it in on time but she had not. The lateness earned her a “B”.
Finally, the student with the beautiful smile turned in her essay. It only took three lines into the essay to realize that she had plagiarized the essay.
I went to the student who earned the “B” and asked her to return her paper to me, that there was something in it I needed to check. I wanted to be sure, to not rely solely on memory, given the numbers of essays I had read. Putting the essays side-by-side, it was obvious that these two Honor students had participated in outright plagiarism, a flagrant violation of the syllabus provided to them at the beginning of the term.
I sat on the papers for a few days, mulling over the seriousness of the violation. One of these girls was a student athlete. The other was student body president. In many schools, a violation of this magnitude would result in a removal from that position. In college, it could earn a student an outright suspension or eviction. At the very least, it would earn them a failing grade.
We met in my classroom, after school one day. I put the papers side-by-side, outlined the passages I knew that she had lifted straight from her classmate’s paper.
At first she was defensive, angry, said she didn’t understand the assignment.
When asked why she never came to me, never sought out any assistance, she didn’t have an answer.
Then she was apologetic, said she was lazy and put off work she didn’t want to do.
We talked about the problems with plagiarism and what it means to have integrity in one’s work. I explained the relationship between being an Honors Student and doing work that is honorable. Then I told her that I would have to report this “cheating’ to the administration, per the Student Body Handbook, which as student body president, she should be aware of.
She wept, begged me not to report it. “It’s your classroom,” she said. “You can decide not to report it.”
That talk on integrity and honor totally irrelevant in her mind.
“No,” I explained. “There are these rules we must all follow. Even me.”
She didn’t want her friend, the classmate who gave her the paper to copy, to get into trouble, too.
“Plagiarism is something you both were participants in,” I explained. “You for copying her paper. Her for giving you the paper to copy.”
Both girls felt it wrong of me to report them. What’s a little cheating among friends, after all? My reporting them was seen as a betrayal. After all, all cheaters know that a truthful person can’t ever be trusted.
She kept her position as student body president, although, she, ultimately, failed Honors class and was subsequently removed, albeit, not without another flurry of tears and begging to “fix this”.
I thought of her last night when I read the official remarks from Melania Trump’s people in response to reports that her speech had been lifted from that of First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech: “in some instances used fragments that reflected her own thinking”.
They failed to say where they got those fragments they used. Of course, they probably figured it was obvious, otherwise they wouldn’t have to be putting out an official disclaimer, would they?
I can’t even feign shock over it. As one keen observer noted, Copy and Paste is Melania Trump’s best speech writing tool.
What is troubling, though, is the number of people who will find nothing troubling about the lack of integrity involved by people seeking this nation’s highest office of leadership.
Perhaps what we really need is a handbook for presidential candidates that addresses why cheating and lying are horrible practices for leaders of our nation’s highest office.
So many seem to have forgotten why cheating is wrong.
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? a book that every evangelical should read before casting their vote for Donald Trump.