Everyone’s Gotta Start Somewhere

It’s embarrassing to admit, but my first publication was plagiarized.

One lazy afternoon when I was eight, my friend Jeannie and I sat on the retaining wall over her driveway, chuffing the backs of our shoes on the masonry and singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs. Somewhere amid all this, she told me a story about a bear who washed the snow to make it white.

The next day my third grade teacher, Margaret Buchannan, assigned us to write a story in class, so I simply jotted down that one.

About a week later, there appeared at our classroom door a sixth grader — taller and older and much meaner than third. And without explanation, he announced that I had been summoned down the hall to his room. … An omigod silence. … Mrs. Buchannan nodded to me, so in obedience, but with considerable trepidation, I followed him out the door.

It felt wrong to be out of class and our shoes clacked eerily down the empty hall.

On entering the room, he took his seat, leaving me to stand alone in front of his class. In the eyes facing me, I recognized several bullies from my neighborhood.

His teacher wasn’t scary as Mrs. White—the spiderish principal at my first school, where it was common knowledge that her back office contained a paddling machine—but she was stout, schoolmarm stern, thoroughly pancaked and deeply rouged.

I plunged both shaking hands into my jean pockets. I couldn’t do much about my knees.

Sitting on the edge or her desk and leaning back with arms folded, Ms. Hogbreath demanded to know if, before writing it for Mrs. Buchanan, I’d ever heard the bear and snow story.

I didn’t hesitate: No, I did not wish to have my feet burned off in the school furnace and dragged home behind the bus.

Without further discussion or explanation, I was dispatched back to my class, completely unaware that I had just become, by my own denial, an author. About a week later, our school newspaper ran Jeannie’s story with my byline.

Fast-forward thirty years.

In an act reserved for retired folk, typically while prowling through boxes to decide what to throw away so their kids won’t have to, Margaret Buchanan retrieved and gave to my mother the original copy of my story: the hand-scrawled pages I’d turned in, complete with cover art and endorsed by her as “Lewis’ masterpiece.” Mom passed it along to me.

I’d read Siddhartha and knew time was an illusion. Also, I had it on good authority that unresolved guilt caused erectile dysfunction.

So still ashamed and in semi-panic, I sought out Jeannie, who was then a high school math teacher in Covington, Virginia, and ‘fessed up to having stolen her story. (I couldn’t remember if we’d ever discussed it.) She called us “partners in crime” and we shared an adult laugh.

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Okay, so I stole my first story, but that’s the only one.

Nowadays I play it safe, writing about my own experiences, which are usually too odd to be made up.

And I can’t accidentally plagiarize myself.

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