She sat in the chair next to my office desk, crying. She had plagiarized a well-known essay, down to the last punctuation mark.
It was the early 1980’s; I was in my fifteenth year as a teacher of writing. I’d stapled the original essay to the back of hers and returned them. From the front of the university classroom, I’d watched her, a woman with drawing-room posture, registered as a last-term senior. Her hands shook; her pale skin turned paler. She gathered up her belongings and rushed from the classroom.
She was waiting for me at my office. Seating herself, she began, “I didn’t know I was plagiarizing a famous essay. A friend at another university got an A on it, and she gave it to me.”
“That’s still plagiarism, you know.” Most cheaters, I’d learned, were cheating to get an A rather than a B.
“Yes,” she said, already in tears, “I know. I was on the student plagiarism board at another Oregon University.”
I offered her a tissue.
“What would you have done to a student who did what you did?”
“In every instance, I advocated the harshest punishment, both expulsion and entering the infraction into the student’s permanent file.”
That was customary if teachers went to the Office of Student Affairs. Some teachers did; others didn’t. But our policy was loosely worded and randomly enforced.
If poetic justice were ever placed in my hands to administer, now was the time. Still, my decision would become part of who we were in twenty years. “I need time to think about what to do. Stop back next week.”
I sought advice. One colleague told me, “Make the student turn in a different paper.” Another said, “Walk the evidence over to the Office of Student Affairs. Then you’re done with it.” Another said, “Give the plagiarist an F on the paper and average it in.” Another said, “Flunk the student for the course, and don’t allow a drop.” The week was stressful, both waking and sleeping.
At our next meeting, I didn’t hesitate. “I’ve made my decision. I’m not reporting you to the Office of Student Affairs. You may enroll with someone else in the Department. I haven’t given anyone your name, so you won’t be discriminated against for what you’ve done.” Then I moved into mini-lecture mode.
I looked directly at her, too hard for her comfort or mine. “I didn’t make this decision because you deserve a second chance. You don’t. I made this decision for the you you’ll become. I’m not willing to make your life more difficult twenty years from now. You may be a single mother or a candidate for public office. You may have learned compassion. I don’t want to hurt that person.”
I stopped. I couldn’t read her face.
Twenty-five years have passed. I don’t know if I made the right choice. I don’t recall her name. I’d like to meet the woman she has become.
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