Cliff Williams

“Okay, I took it from someone else,” "Cindy" exclaimed with a bit of belligerence.

I had suspected that her essay had been copied, the whole thing, word for word. Actually, I knew it had been. It was A+ writing and Cindy had gotten C+’s on her other written work. The vocabulary and sentence structure were strikingly different. The length of the sentences was 24 words per sentence compared with 12 for a test she had written in class. Other little differences confirmed my suspicion.

I had left a message on her voice mail for her to stop by. She was busy that week. I had left another message saying she could come the following week. Half an hour before the appointed time she sent me a message saying she had to go home that afternoon. I told her she could come two days later. This time she came.

I asked her how she had gone about writing her essay. “What do you mean?” she asked. “How did you put it together?” I responded. “I got ideas and put them into the paper.” “How did you do that,” I asked. She fumbled for words, but maintained her front. I decided to be blunt. “The writing is so different that it looks as if it might be someone else’s. And the paper’s topic is one that fits the honors section.” That’s when she blurted out her confession.

“I already knew,” I responded. I recounted the differences between the paper and her other writing. When I finished, she exclaimed, “I think I really wanted to get caught. When I turned it in, I thought, ‘That was stupid to do that.”” I did not respond.

“So what happens now?” she asked.

“The penalty for plagiarizing on a major assignment is an F for the course. In addition, I will be writing to the dean of students recommending that you be put on probation with the understanding that if you do this again, you be expelled from the college.”

Cindy sat silently, looking down. Tears ran down her cheeks. I handed her a box of tissues. She continued to sit silently while crying. I remained still.

Most of my energy up until then had been spent trying to determine whether the paper had been plagiarized. Though part of me knew it had, another part of me needed the confession to be certain. And the sense of betrayal had not yet risen to the surface. Now it did.

“I like you, Cindy. And I feel betrayed,” I said.

The silence continued. Someone knocked on the office door. I did not answer. We both remained silent, Cindy still looking down, I at her face. After several minutes, she said, “I’m sorry I did it.” I was not able to respond. I was not able to tell her I forgave her. I thought, though, that I had better say something positive. So after more silence I said, “If you take the course again from me, I will welcome you. And if I see you around campus, I will look you in the eye and give you a smile.”

I knew I would have to grow into those words. All I could feel then was betrayal. I didn’t think I would trust her if she took the course from me again. I didn’t feel like encountering her and giving her a smile. Still, I had to say those words. I thought they could help break the breach betrayal had created. I imagined they might draw me to forgiveness.

They didn’t. I didn’t want to see Cindy. I couldn’t imagine myself smiling at her. Once, I think, I forced myself to do so. Another time I forced myself to wave at her from a distance when she caught my eye.

Part of the change came at the school’s annual square dance. She and her partner were standing near me and mine as the second round of squares was forming. People were moving in different directions, getting partners, and forming groups of eight. I saw her standing near me but was afraid to look in her direction. She obviously saw me, too, for she declared, “I want to be in Prof. Williams’s group.” We got up a group and some of the breach broke.

More change came when she retook the course from me a year later.

Published in New Scriptor: A Forum for Illinois Educators, XIII (2012) 52-54

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