I spent more than 20 years plagued by guilt about this incident. I'd like to think that I've made a full recovery, but I'm still gripped with the fear of judgment any time I tell anyone about this. Still, you're only as sick as your secrets. So I'm going to let the entire internet in on one of my darker ones.
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, ultimately leading to world peace.
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. He made me 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 example, I made mention of an M16. I am the daughter of people who put their 7-year-old in a play about ending the nuclear arms race. I didn't have the foggiest idea what an M16 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. Sure, sometime between first grade and age 30 I'd learned that Shakespeare was infamous for his plagiary, but it didn't make me feel any better about my own transgressions.
It might seem that Mr. Israel must have just been giving me enough rope to hang myself, but that would have been a cruel thing to do to a first grader. He was clueless. He had ridiculously high expectations. But he wasn't mean, just overzealous. Moreover, I don’t remember being hanged. 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 one fateful day in my early 30s. Another thing about first grade that I’ve always remembered was that on the first day, there were two girls in my class with long, blond hair. The next day there was only one. Ironically, I never forgot the name of the missing girl, 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.
I had reconnected with another high school friend, and the two of us took our young sons to a coffee shop with a play area for children. That is where I saw Anna.
Why had she disappeared after that first day? For one simple reason – her mother had seen that Mr. Israel knew absolutely nothing about young children. He had spoken to her after school 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 enrolled her in a Waldorf program, where she remained until high school. Understandably, Anna still had some hard feelings toward Mr. Israel, although rumors had reached both of us that he’d died of AIDS some years before.
I can say with some degree of confidence that I have solved the mystery that plagued me for so many years. I was a smart kid, but I didn’t write the script of a fictional game show satirizing the cold war at seven years old. Now all I can see is the ludicrous fact that Mr. Israel apparently believed I had. Maybe that should make me feel guiltier, but I've paid my debt to society a thousand times over. It's stranger and more hilarious than fiction. The man had no earthly clue what his first graders should be capable of. He expected adult work, and he was pleased but not especially surprised when I delivered. Could that be why I felt I couldn't turn in something I'd done myself?
Or maybe my teacher knew exactly what he was doing. If so, I salute him. He was a worthy opponent. I know he is looking down on me and feeling as amused yet remorseful as I am.
Despite it all, I still love Mr. Israel in my memory. 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.