5th grade.  1965.  I was 9.

I have erased the teacher’s name from my memory.

It was my very first outside project.  Homework if you will.  A book report. It had to be a biography. It had to be a certain length.  She gave us the due date.  It was weeks away.  An eternity.

Hmm.  I had no idea what a biography was or how to write a book report. Nor did I bother to ask anyone.  I knew my single-parent mother was useless counsel.  Hey, I’d figure it out.

No sweat.


No sweat.  I made no effort at all to help myself.  I waited until the day before it was due to start.  Sunday.  Afternoon.  Less than 24 hours from D-Day.

I then proceeded to do what a clever, but stupid 9-year-old does.  I cheated.

I looked over at a stack of Reader’s Digests my mother had piled up. Reader’s Digest had abbreviated articles about all kinds of things.  Surely I’d find book report material there without having to do a lot of reading.  I didn’t do much investigation.  I picked up the top magazine and flipped to a story.

The report had to be in your own words.  The teacher was very specific about that.  That seemed like it was going to take too long.  It made much more sense to just copy what was already there.

As I recall, the article revolved around house fires and insurance settlements.  Definitely not a biography.  That was mistake number one.

Mistake two was copying it verbatim – or as I reasoned in my 9-year-old head – my own words.  When I got to the required number of words, I stopped copying.  Probably a third of the way through the story.  What I copied wasn’t even complete.  Hey, I’d done the physical work of actually writing words on lined paper.  As far as I was concerned, I had emerged victorious.  I had beat the system and no one would be the wiser.

On Monday morning, I turned in my report with confidence.  That was mistake number three.

At the end of the week, our English teacher had graded our reports.  They were neatly stacked on a corner of her desk, ready to be returned to their authors.

After taking attendance, she stood up, came around the front of her desk, and addressed the class.

“Does anyone know what plagiarism is?”

No hands went up.  Good.  I wasn’t alone.

“Well, that’s when you take someone else’s words and pretend they’re your own.”

And with that out of the way, she scooped the stack of book reports into her arms.  She walked directly to my desk and planted herself.  Glaring down at me.  My book report was on the very top of the pile.  With a flourish of sorts, she peeled my triple mistake off the stack and slapped it down on my desk in front of me.  I mean, slapped it down.

Inscribed boldly across the top of the first page was a 2-inch high red “F.” Underneath the grade you never wanted to get, she’d written PLAGIARISM in all caps.  And in case the import might be lost on my fragile little mind, she’d underlined the word 3 times and popped an exclamation point on the end for good measure.

The silence in the room was a penalty all its own.

Was I humiliated?  Yes.

Embarrassed?  Yes.

Mortified?  Yes.

Had it coming?  You bet.

None of that felt good.

And I never did it again.