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Writing Past Wrongs

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Father Willis, an entirely unapproachable patriarch, loomed over his congregation like a butte over the desert floor, impossibly distant yet giant and ever-present.

During the early '60s, I attended St. Cecelia's Grammar School, a Catholic parish school in an old, crumbling neighborhood amid the urban sprawl of Jersey City outside New York. An ethnic stew, our neighborhood teemed with kids with names like Sullivan, Dellacorte, and Sowinsky. The parents in this neighborhood--first-generation sons and daughters of European immigrants--put the educational and spiritual care of their children in the capable hands of our pastor, Father Willis, an entirely unapproachable patriarch. More Moses than Jesus, he loomed over his congregation like a butte over the desert floor, impossibly distant yet giant and ever-present. One might walk all day toward him and never seem to get any closer. Father Willis could have been an evangelist; he certainly had brimstone eyes. He had grown up in a large Irish family from a hardscrabble neighborhood in New York City that had hardened him toward humanity and even toward his parishioners, whom I've no doubt he loved in his own way. In the school

When I was in 4th grade, Father Willis was promoted to Monsignor Willis. I didn't know what that promotion meant, for the Monsignor continued to provide for our parish exactly as he had before. The only difference I could see was that he now sported plum-colored sashes and cloth buttons on his customary black cassock. And he got a new holy cap with natty square angles that made him look part Greek fisherman, part hipster. At the time of his promotion, my 4th grade teacher instructed our class to write the Monsignor a congratulatory letter. As a way of recognizing the top writer among us, she promised to send him the best letter. If my memory serves me well, this incident marked the moment I became a "writer."

It so happened that during the same week, my brother had been asked by his 8th grade science teacher to write a mock letter of congratulations to Louis Pasteur, praising the microbiologist's 19th-
century discovery of pasteurization. My brother's letter, which I found on our bedroom desk, began, "Dear Mr. Pasteur: I'm writing to congratulate you on your recent discovery of pasteurization. Your work in this field is superior, and the community of scientists will benefit greatly by your leadership. Your achievement is certainly noteworthy and merits high praise. . . ." Well, as a sharp but lazy 9-year-old, I did exactly what you might expect: I took my brother's letter, substituted Monsignor Willis' name for Louis Pasteur's, and rewrote some of the critical phrases. When my teacher chose it to represent the 4th grade students, no one was more surprised than I. Of course, I didn't admit the fraud, and my work was forwarded to the Monsignor.

I use the word "fraud" now, with many years of hindsight, but my deception was not something that, at the time, I considered to be wrong. To the contrary, I actually felt quite proud of my resourcefulness in "composing" the letter.

In 5th grade, I wrote a geography report on Brazil, illustrating it with a map I copied from the encyclopedia, carefully tracing its borders and contours onto wax paper. I also transferred the encyclopedia's text to my report with no less attention to the fine points of facsimile duplication. I was hailed by teachers and classmates as a budding writer.

Meanwhile, my brother had moved on to a high school across town. Over the next two years, I continued to glean from his homework any bit of raw material that could be easily transported from his notebooks to mine. He had no idea I regularly recycled his work. A longer term paper on the history of the American locomotive followed my Brazilian success. Once in a while, his science or history homework produced something of value, though nothing ever came close to winning me the acclaim of his felicitous letter to Pasteur. I soon discovered that his English classes, where the subjects for writing assignments ranged far and wide, yielded the richest and most versatile harvests. In time, my discourses were posted on bulletin boards in prominent spots in our small school, bringing me recognition as a writer exemplar. My widowed mother, who never checked our homework or attended parent-teacher meetings, knew nothing of my schoolwide reputation as a distinguished scribbler.

My meteoric rise to fame took a downward turn as suddenly as it had been launched.

My meteoric rise to fame took a downward turn as suddenly as it had been launched. Like many undeserving of success, I let it ruin me. By 6th grade, I no longer studied my brother's books or his homework with the curiosity and zeal necessary to remodel his work as mine. I'd become lazy and careless, uninterested in my craft. When I was supposed to do an autumn leaf collection, I instead turned in my brother's insect collection. When my teacher, Mrs. Peeper, asked why I collected insects instead of the assigned leaves, I harrumphed arrogantly and said, "Leaves! Hah! That's kid stuff." Mrs. Peeper accepted the bugs and docked me only 15 points. A spark of suspicion glimmered momentarily in her eye, which might have forewarned me, but I ignored it; a B was good enough after all.

In December of that year, I had a book report due. My classmates were writing about the Hardy Boys, Charlotte's Web, The Black Stallion, and the like. I had read nothing since the start of school, and on the eve of the deadline I desperately rifled my brother's books, looking for something passable. My fingers lingered covetously over a three-page, typed analysis of J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. I read the paper carefully. It had gotten an A in my brother's honors English class. It contained many words I'd never seen before: "episodic," "narratology," "epiphany," and even a French phrase, tranche de vie. As an experienced counterfeiter, I knew such highfalutin language might breed more suspicion in Mrs. Peeper's mind, but I guessed from my brother's essay that most of Salinger's characters were children. Maybe it was a kid's book after all. I copied the essay word for word, intentionally misspelling some of the stranger words to reduce it to the authentic work of a 6th grader.

Two days later, I was hauled into detention for my crime. Mrs. Peeper took great delight in holding me before my classmates as an example of what laziness, apathy, and arrogance could amount to. My writing was torn from the bulletin boards and, much worse, defaced by the crayon graffiti of my peers: "Cheater!"

My reputation as a cheater didn't last long. After a week had passed, no one seemed to recall that I had once been a promising writer or a notorious forger. I didn't forget, though. I thought of myself as an impostor, certainly not a writer, and I began to labor over my own writing--a task that's never gotten any easier over time--with such devotion and atonement that my words might one day, I imagine, be worthy of touching a monsignor's heart.

--Chris Benson

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