Guilty of Being a Writer

Posted by on March 13, 2015

People often ask, “Greg, when did you first know you were a writer?”

If they know something about my background, they might assume it was when I received my Master’s degree in English, or when my first book was published, or when I was hired to write manuals and marketing copy for one of the world’s biggest videogame companies. While each of these events helped confirm that I had good writing skills, I trace my path to becoming a writer back to the day I was accused of plagiarism in the seventh grade.

Here’s how it went down.

The year was 1975. The place was Mrs. X’s seventh-grade classroom at St. Dunstan Catholic School in Millbrae, California. I, and my fellow students, had been assigned to write a book report. Not only did we have to describe a book and why we liked it (or not), but we also had to design the report to look like a book jacket with a drawing on the front and our writing on the back and inside flaps.

I chose to write about a book called Always on the Run by two Miami Dolphins players, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. Csonka, a bruising running back, was my favorite player in those days. I wasn’t a Miami fan, but my team, the San Francisco 49ers, were terrible back then, and something about Csonka’s battering-ram style appealed to me.

I read the book from cover to cover, wrote and designed my report, turned it in on time, and waited for my grade. On the day Mrs. X returned the book reports, I sat anxiously at my desk. I’d put a lot of effort into the assignment and was eager to see what she thought about my work. One by one, Mrs. X handed back the reports to everyone in the classroom—everyone except me, that is.

“Excuse me, Mrs. X,” I said. “But I didn’t receive my book report.”

There must be a simple explanation, I thought. Maybe she returned my report to someone else by mistake. Or maybe she misplaced it in one of the teetering stacks on her desk. One look from Mrs. X, however, told me something was terribly wrong. She glared at me from behind her desk with the same look she’d given to Mike S and Billy T when she caught them stealing change from the “UNICEF” jar.

“See me after class,” she said.

I was a nervous wreck for the rest of the day. As I watched the minutes tick by on the old clock above the chalkboard, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why Mrs. X wanted to talk to me. When the bell rang, I waited at my desk long enough for everyone to leave the classroom, and then I walked to the front of the room.

My hands shook and my heart beat hard in my chest, then I thought it might stop altogether when Mrs. X pulled my report out of a desk drawer. There, right on the cover, Mrs. X had marked an “F” in thick, red ink across the picture I’d drawn of Larry Csonka.

“Do you know what ‘plagiarism’ means?”

Mrs. X’s words were like a heavyweight punch to my gut. She’d discussed plagiarism at length when she gave us the assignment. I knew exactly what it meant, though that didn’t stop her from explaining the concept all over again.

“‘Plagiarism,’” said Mrs. X, “is when you copy someone else’s words and claim them to be your own. In many schools,” she continued, “it is grounds for immediate expulsion.”

I was in shock. I’d never received an “F” on anything in my life, nor had I ever cheated on my schoolwork. I didn’t know what to say, but I also realized I had a very small window of opportunity to defend myself. My reputation was on the line.

With a great deal of stammering and stuttering, I laid out my case. I’m not sure if Mrs. X believed me, but she eventually relented and changed the grade to a “C.” It was a lower mark than I deserved, but she made it clear that fighting for something better would not be a wise course of action. Plus, all I could think about was getting out of that classroom as quickly as possible.

In the forty-five minutes or so it took for me to walk home, I couldn't stop thinking about something Mrs. X had said in our meeting. As it turned out, she’d come to the conclusion that I plagiarized the book report because, as she put it, “I didn’t think you had it in you to write so well.”

And so it was in that seventh-grade classroom, in 1975, with the image of Mrs. X’s misplaced anger forever burned into my memory, that I realized I have what it takes to be a writer.