When I was in first grade (this is a true story), one of my classmates forgot to do – didn’t do - her homework assignment. I’ll admit, I was a kid who liked homework. I loved it, actually. First grade homework involved crayons and markers, wooden #2 pencils, their gratifying erasers, and ditto sheets or stapled paper booklets. It’s basically why I went into education. :)
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
The Harm of Plagiarism (Asteya: Do not steal).
Anyway, that previous night’s first grade homework assignment given to us by Mrs. Cowan was to think about our favorite fruits, write about what we like about them, and to draw a picture. Again, writing and illustrating, everything I live for. So I had picked an apple and banana. Uncreative choices perhaps, but what I knew and loved.
At the top of the page were my drawings. Apple on left – a red circle drawn in my signature fashion of dark pressing hard with the wax crayon till it lightly stuck onto the paper around the edge and colored in more softly on the inside with a dark stem and two leaves. And a lopsided lemonade-yellow banana on the right. My written description of my appreciation for them involved maybe 3 sentences on dotted lined paper – the kind to help us with our De’Nealian handwriting.
So my classmate began to panic that she didn’t do the homework assignment. She used to wear a bow in her hair every day, and I always liked her kind of aloof vibe though we weren’t particularly close friends (our last names were far apart in the alphabet, as were our seats). She came up to me before the start of class and urgently asked me what the assignment was. I had the prompt rewritten at the top of my paper, so I showed it to her. She asked if she could borrow it, and I said yes. Given that it was an open-ended question, I would never have thought what happened would happen.
My classmate returned my homework paper to me before class started, but when I saw Mrs. Cowan was coming around to collect homework from each of us, from across the tables I saw the paper my classmate handed in on top of the homework stack – a giant red circle, dark around the edge and lighter red in the middle with a dark stem and two leaves, and a lopsided lemonade-yellow banana on the right.
At first I was confused. Wait. What? And then I felt sick. Then angry. Then scared.
Mrs. Cowan came around and picked up my table’s homework assignments, and I didn’t know what to do. I would hand mine in I decided, but as a 6-year-old, I didn’t know that I was not in the wrong. I just knew that now two identical assignments to an open-ended question made no sense. And I was so afraid of getting in trouble. But I recall the strongest sensation of something that was then unidentifiable to me: a feeling of theft. That was MY work. I loved drawing that apple and banana, and I thought and worked hard on writing about why I loved apples and bananas the most of all fruits, and how could you steal that away from me. And now the teacher would have no idea if I had copied my classmate, or if she had copied me. I went back to a feeling of terror.
At some point, maybe between reading groups, I actually went up to my classmate. I was a pretty quiet kid back then, and I remember absolutely wanting to throw up. But it must have been how much I loved my work that walked my feet over to her desk. In a first grade way (I can’t exactly remember), I said to her, “How could you copy me? It doesn’t make sense to draw and write the same thing to a question that doesn’t have one right answer.”
And this was the part that was utterly disorienting. Her response to me - and I’ll never forget it – was, “I didn’t.”
Now, you’d think that my reaction would be retaliation, “Yes you did!!!” But my classmate's nonchalant demeanor and the way she appeared to really believe her own statement without a trace of guilt – her “I didn’t” - made me question myself, imagine if I was seeing things, if I had falsely accused. I was suddenly voiceless.
This is a true story that comes to mind as I handle a lot of things right now as an adult. I didn’t sleep much last night. Or for the last week since becoming aware of a published and republished 2018 article by an author who plagiarized my words, my voice, my researched facts and stories – down to order - of a 2017 article of mine that took me months of reflection to frame and word just right with my editorial team. And I wonder why, and but how could-?, and I worry about the aftermath, my inability to control added harm in spite of trying, and I wonder about the multitude of connections, voice, and credit that for nearly two years has been attributed to someone else, and I empathize with all the people that this has happened to far too many times in our history. The blatant irony of how this has happened to Yoga itself as I write to stand up for it.
How confused. Sick. Mad. And scared I am.
Because of this, I’ve felt myself concerned about losing grip on my writing and the values I stand for, and yet one thing I know - one thing I’ve wanted to be since I was small - is an author and illustrator. So this morning, I turned to writing to tell you this story.
I imagine you’re wondering what happened in first grade that day. Or maybe you’re not, but I like imagining you’d like to know thanks to my effective build of suspense, ha.
Mrs. Cowan began checking our homework, and as I looked over to her desk, I wondered if I should say anything. If I did, what would I say? I was still learning how to build a basic sentence. Until suddenly, I saw Mrs. Cowan’s eyes pause on the page in her hands. And then what I feared the most.
“Rina,” she called. Then my classmate’s name called in succession. “Both of you, please come see me at my desk.”
I fumbled and furied and fretted and I wanted to say Mrs. Cowan I swear I didn’t know she would copy me and I swear it was my work. But the time my classmate and I arrived at Mrs. Cowan’s side, I had nothing but blankness in my mind.
Mrs. Cowan said nothing. She turned the identical papers around to face both of us. And looked at us both.
And then, my classmate started to cry. Heave. Sob. Her confession was wordless. Mrs. Cowan acknowledged me with a warm look, placed my homework paper back onto the stack with a check plus, and I was sent back to my seat.
I didn’t ever receive a direct apology from my classmate. And this story was never erased from my memory. I can still even see my classmate’s green and white striped skirt outfit and her matching bow. She was a child who didn't know better. And Mrs. Cowan helped us both.
I am really angry, hurt, and tired right now. Partially because of the belief that of course an adult would steal my work. But another thing I know is that Yoga never claims that life is easy. Wrong and harmful things like this unfortunately happen, which is why some guidelines can help us as we deal with them. Don’t steal (asteya). It creates fires of ongoing pain. And fire won’t put out the fire (ahimsa). And impermanence tells me, I’ll probably feel shitty (and perhaps those who love me will feel shitty) for a bit longer. I will feel tired as I take energy to be mindful in my communication as I still advocate for long-term justice (because it does take a lot of energy to not just advocate, but to do so consciously and for the marathon, not the sprint), then after that it will hopefully feel more ok, then this will likely rear its head again in some way, and then I’ll feel ok to move forward again till it possibly comes up again. Messy. Not avoidable. But something I can anticipate and prepare for at least a little, thanks to the true meaning of Yoga.
For now though, there is a burning question in my mind that also relates to Yoga - conscious directing of our attention elsewhere to prevent depletion. So I’d genuinely love to know:
What is your favorite fruit or fruits, and what do you like about them? Optional drawings welcome. :)
Thank you for reading and for your support.