I Was A Teenage Plagiarist

I’ve always had a sense of entitlement. It’s because I’m a writer I guess, or maybe a Pisces, or a little sister, or maybe it’s just because I’m a jerk.  It started in high school. I was a horrible student. I wanted to be the type of person who “didn’t have to study,” and so I became that person. The entitled part of me thought I was smart enough to not study and do really well. I thought I was “above studying.” Turned out I was wrong. I failed every test until I learned how to cheat, another bullshit entitled move. Get someone else to work hard, steal his or her work, and claim it for my own. It was during that time I surrendered to the fact that I was  not a genius after all, but probably just really lazy. In my heart I knew I was a fuck up, so I embraced it. I got in trouble and not in ways that made me seem rebellious or cool. I was miserable because I truly thought I was meant to be something better than just your average pedestrian teenager. There was no Freaks and Geeks yet; there was nothing that made me romanticize what I was. The Breakfast Club was funny but in the real life version of it we were all just a bunch of ugly kids with oily skin under oppressive fluorescent lighting.  My So Called Life was good but I didn’t understand what Angela Chase was always bitching about. In real life, she got to be Claire Danes. She was hot and didn’t even have to go to school.

One thing I had going for me was that I read. I read a lot, one book after another constantly and had been doing so for years. I read young adult books and adult novels and even nonfiction. I loved reading and I loved writing too, but I could not place in honors English. All the kids in honors English, in my opinion, were idiot assholes, and they didn’t read books and if they did, they read the wrong ones. But they studied, and memorized vocabulary words, aced tests and were therefore able to place in higher-level classes. I didn’t do any of that, yet still felt entitled to be an honors student. I didn’t give a shit and enjoyed not giving a shit, but about this: I was jealous.

You would think the simple answer to my conundrum would be “Okay, study vocab words and you’ll get A’s. If you get A’s, you’ll be able to get into honors.” An idea like that makes sense to me now, but at the time I can’t even remember it being an option. My teacher loved me, as they always did in English because I was very participatory. Mrs. Johnson announced in class one day that the school was going to have a poetry contest. Everyone in the 9th grade was going to write a poem and submit it, and if you didn’t want it to be entered into the contest you can submit it as ‘anonymous.’

During this time I had just made a slew of cool, older friends from the Long Island punk/hardcore scene. One of them was a girl named Cynthia. She lived a few towns over and was finishing high school in an “independent study.” Who does that? A year prior to that she had just “moved to San Diego for a year.” Alone. WHAT? Her parents let her do that?! I was fucking impressed.

Cynthia loved writing and reading just like I did. She told me to read “The Tao Of Pooh” and “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman, which I did. Cynthia made zines and sent them to me in the mail. They were poetry zines of her own poems and they were amazing. She was the genius I never was but had always wanted to be. She didn’t even need to go to school to be smart. She was the coolest, prettiest girl I had ever met, making Angela Chase look like a cartoon version of a silly girl with a crush. Cynthia was above “crushes,” but said she had a crush on me. A girl could have a crush on a girl she told me. It was a friend crush. The concept blew my mind. She seemed to have gotten smart not by studying, but through osmosis. Life experience. I wanted to receive whatever Cynthia had through osmosis too. I tried to hang out with her as much as I could so I could absorb what she had and make it my own.

One day I received a poem from Cynthia in the mail that captured exactly how I felt at the time. It was called “The Brown Box” and it was about how sitting stiffly at a desk in school made her feel like someone trapped in an “ordinary brown box” and has a result, she became ordinary. The “system” had made her plain, stiff, and controlled. That was the gist of the poem anyway. It was so good! If only I had written it! If only I had written it I would not only win the poetry contest, but I would also be able to prove to all those honors students that they were just really part of the “system” and not as smart as they thought! THEY were in The Brown Box, but I was free. I needed to write a poem just like The Brown Box so I could prove how they were all slaves to the institution but I was actually a genius.

But I was lazy, and I didn’t write a poem just like Cynthia’s. I just used her poem. I knew it was fucked up but I also knew no one would ever find out. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, how do you know it falls? YOU DON’T SUCKERS! I rationalized it that way. I felt like the poem was owed to me anyway. I was a dip shit. I’m not the hero in this story. Don’t root for me.

I submitted “The Brown Box” and a week later Mrs. Johnson called me up to her desk. This was not a rare occurrence as I was usually doing something idiotic that required the teachers attention. This was not the case.

“Lesley, I wanted to talk about the poem you submitted.” My stomach immediately dropped and I wanted to die. My face turned bright red, because I knew what was coming next.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I wanted to tell you first in private that you won the contest. The other teachers and I have discussed it, and we wanted to know if you would read it in front of the school at assembly.”

Winning I was expecting. This I was not. I had never felt so ashamed in my life, but the last thing she said made the entire thing even worse.

“You know Lesley, judging from this poem, if you gets A’s on the next three vocab exams, I am going to submit your name for second semester honors English.

In that moment, I hated myself. No.  Despised myself. I had many “hating myself” moments during high school, but this one hit in me in a place that I didn’t think anyone was able to touch, because I loved writing, I loved English, and I knew I really was smart enough to be enrolled in honors on my own. Had I written my own poem, would it have made such an impression? I didn’t know. The one thing I had never doubted was suddenly the only thing I would ever doubt, if not for the rest of my life, then for many years after. I would never be a real writer, I thought, just a fraud. A cheat. A copycat. Of course I hadn’t known that this “small lie” would now be replaced by a loud, booming voice in my head that I would bring with me every time I sat in front of the blank page. “YOU CAN’T WRITE. YOU’RE NOT GOOD. YOU ARE A PLAGORIST. “ We all know how hard it is to tune out that voice, even when we haven’t ever plagiarized.  I was guilty of the worst writers crime known to man.

I declined reading the poem in front of the 9th grade, even after Mrs. Johnson had begged me. I did allow her to read it, which she did, after I was awarded with a journal at the assembly. The following months I would memorize every vocab word we had on index cards and ace all the tests. I got into honors English. Later that year I came clean to Cynthia and told her what I done. I was prepared for her to dump me as a friend, but I had to tell someone.

That poem?” She said, laughing. “I had totally forgot about that one. It was so CHEESY!” I was relieved that she wasn’t mad and also a little embarrassed because I had thought so highly of “The Brown Box.” “That’s cool that you’re in honors English though, even though the books they pick are so stupid. Regular English has such better books. You shouldn’t have switched. Who cares about honors anyway?” She shrugged her shoulders and looked me dead in eyes. “It’s all bullshit Lesley.” TC mark

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  • Gian

    This is great. I love Lesley Arfin though I've never met her. But I already feel like I know what her voice sounds like just by always having read her shit.

  • fanofleslies

    Reading your articles always makes my day go by faster. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/derpcircus miles barney

    That last paragraph was so satisfying.

  • Jtprius510

    This reminds me of one of those episodes you would see of The Wonder Years, Saved By The Bell, Boy Meets World or My So Called Life. So melodramatic. The first sentence says it all, 'I've always had a sense of self entitlement.' So 90's and introspective.

  • http://twitter.com/sally_or sally orie

    lovely

  • disappointed

    i really like your writing, but this piece really bothers me, mostly because you still plagiarize. i've read your intro to the selby book and some piece you did on bikini kill, and they both ripped off the same w.s. merwin poem, “separation.” don't try to call it a homage because you used the same two lines in both with no credit given in either. you're funny and have a great voice, but this is seriously lame.

    • Lesleyarfin

      I never claimed I wrote “Separation,” I just honestly thought it was an anonymous poem because that’s what it said when I read it on “Poetry In Motion” on the subway. I would hate for anyone to think I claimed to have written that perfect poem. I just didn’t do the research to know that it was written by w.s.merwin because… I’M LAZY.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DOOVTA3F4ONBICAKCUZRNDXP2E Ryan James

    Remember when you were funny and entertaining?

  • Guest

    Fuck these bitches saying you still plagiarize… every artist needs to know where and how to copy. This was a really good story.

  • Guest

    No, every artist does not need to know “where and how to copy” what kind of cockamamie logic is that? As an artist you may only “copy” if you are giving due credit.

  • http://seriousfuss.com Seriousfuss

    I was that too, I was that too. Kudos.

  • guest!

    and…. what happened to Cynthia? where is she now?

  • Guest

    Love this. I, too, have had issues with plagiarism. It's stupid, because people tell me all the time how my actual work is great, but I can't allow myself to believe it, so I cheat to make myself feel better. I got caught once, and one of the professors in the meeting about it had once told me “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal.” Heh. Well, so much for that. I didn't get dismissed, but the fear of completely fucking myself set me straight. This was excellent, thank you for writing this.

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