I’m not going to rehash the Jonah Lehrer saga that prompted this post. I’m not even going to link to it, because it infuriates me.
What I am going to do is tell you a story. [In full disclosure, this story is based solely on my own memories -- and 20+ year old memories at that -- so there are likely to be some inaccuracies. I didn't seek outside sources for factual confirmation.]
When I was in third grade, I got in trouble for plagiarizing. I vaguely remember my teacher talking with my parents (who are also teachers) and slightly more clearly remember getting sent to my room to “think about what I’d done” when we got home. But I vividly remember the knot in my stomach because of all of it, a knot that’s there now, just thinking about it.
My version is this: I was reading a book about the solar system, I think, and there was a poem about each of the planets (including Pluto), the sun and the moon. I remember really liking one of the poems. Let’s say it was Saturn. Because I couldn’t take the book home from school, I decided to write the poem down so I could take that home instead and read it whenever I wanted to.
My teacher came over to my desk and asked what I was doing. I probably said something like, “Writing a poem.” I had meant it matter-of-factly, the way kids usually do, like, I’m literally just writing down this poem. But my teacher thought I had meant that I was in the process of authoring an original work.
The year before, I had placed second in a state-wide science poetry competition, so it was probably natural for the teacher to assume what she did. I don’t know how long it took her to realize the poem was “plagiarized.” What I do know is that it made me feel like shit. I didn’t do anything wrong (in my mind), but I understood that what they thought I had done was wrong. And I would be damned if I ever, ever did that again.
Thankfully, that episode didn’t deter me from writing. I love writing. Like I tweeted earlier, I write because it physically overwhelms me not to write. In fact, writing this is helping to ease away the rage, or nausea, or whatever emotion it was that I felt listening to Lehrer’s
apology rationalization for his actions.
When I write it’s because I have something inside me that I desperately need to get out, whether it’s a ranty blog post like this one or an important story. But I don’t take my readers for granted, ever. Like I also tweeted, I’m terrified of making a mistake.
I know mistakes happen, and learning to own up to them when they’re honest is actually a very helpful and rewarding skill to have. I don’t strive for perfection, but I do strive for thoroughness and honesty. I’ll hold something back if I’m not sure I can say it with confidence.
Which is why it pisses me the FRICK OFF that Lehrer is “apologizing” for his “mistakes.” Plagiarizing and fabricating quotes are not mistakes. They are conscious choices.
My pseudo run-in with plagiarism put the fear of God in me. Even though I maintain my innocence, or at least my naivete at the time, it taught me an important lesson — one that I clearly have not forgotten, and never want to.