I’ve never told anyone this. It should probably be a tearful conversation with my husband or one close friend, but for whatever reason telling the whole internet world suddenly seems like the best course of action. While I came to terms with my guilt a couple of years ago, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of your judgment, because mine is among what is widely considered to be the most disdainful of crimes.
You see, in first grade, I committed plagiary.
At the time, I was in a play called Peace Child. It was the story of an American boy and a Russian (Soviet at the time. Soviet. Do not call them Russians, our directors drilled into us!) girl who formed a friendship despite the objections of both their parents and their respective countries.
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I do remember that what I turned in was a scene from Peace Child. My teacher, Mr. Israel, was blown away and immediately set to work staging it. Suddenly I was the writer and director. I was in too deep to come clean. I didn’t even know what all the words in the play meant–for instance, I had made mention of an “M16”, without the slightest idea of what one was.
For years, I was torn apart by remorse. Even at 30, I think on some level I truly believed that if people knew what I’d done, I’d be finished. Learning that plagiary was part of what Shakespeare was famous for didn’t soothe my conscience one bit.
It would seem that Mr. Israel must have just been giving me enough rope to hang myself with, although that would have been a pretty cruel thing to do to a first grader. Besides, I don’t remember ever being hanged. Still, I puzzled over the memory–how on earth did this happen, and how did I get away with it?
I believe my questions were finally answered a couple of years ago. Another thing that I’ve always remembered was that, on the first day of first grade, there were two girls in my class with long, blond hair. On the second day one of those girls had disappeared. Ironically, never forgot her name, Anna, but can’t for the life of me remember who the girl I presumably went to school with all the way through sixth grade was. I didn’t see Anna again until high school. We were friendly but not close. We never discussed first grade–I suspected that she was the girl who had gone missing, but I wasn’t sure. I barely knew her, but she would later be the key to my unraveling the whole fiasco.
Fast forward to that fateful day in my early 30s when Anna and I met again and everything became crystal clear. Why had Anna disappeared after that first day? For one simple reason–her mother saw that Mr. Israel knew absolutely nothing about young children. He had spoken to her after the first day and told her that he didn’t think her daughter belonged in the gifted program because she’d wanted to color when the class was doing something else. Shocked and insulted, Anna’s mother pulled her out of the school and put her in Waldorf, where she remained until high school. Understandably, Anna still had hard feelings for Mr. Israel, although rumors had reached both of us that he’d died of AIDS some years before.
So guess what? I have solved the mystery. I was a smart kid, but I didn’t write a script of a fictional game show satirizing the cold war at six or seven years old. Now all I can see is the outrageous fact that Mr. Israel believed I had. Maybe that should just make me feel guiltier, but in retrospect it seems stranger–and more hilarious–than fiction. This man had no earthly clue what his first graders should be capable of. While I know I shouldn’t attempt to put the blame for my actions on anyone else, perhaps it is even possible that, with expectations like that, I felt that I could not turn in something my seven-year-old self had written?
Despite it all, I still love my memory of Mr. Israel. Over the years I occasionally received word that he remembered me fondly too. But I was relieved to learn that, sometime between my first grade year and the end of his teaching career, he moved on to older kids.