ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS

She had no way of knowing – the dear girl – what those two apparently unrelated questions would do to me: How they would wrench the rocket of our lives out of one trajectory and thrust it willy-nilly into another, destination unknown.

But life is like that, epiphanies are like that: only in retrospect are we able to track down cause from the effect.

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It was a snowy December morning like so many others, before or since, when that first question happened. After one of my English classes, Naomi Snowdy (one of our English majors), skipped preliminaries and small talk, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I’m so sick of dorm regulations and cafeteria food that if I have to endure another weekend of it I think I’ll go stark raving mad! Can I come home with you this weekend?”

I called my wife and quoted Naomi to her. She laughed and said, “Sure, I can remember feeling that way, too, during college. Tell her she’s welcome.”

So the stage was set. I can see it now as though it were yesterday rather than 21 long years ago. We’d reached our Annapolis home, on the shores of Maryland’s shimmering Severn River. Naomi had unpacked, we’d eaten a delicious supper, the wind was howling outside, and the snow was slashing at our windows.

After dinner, exhausted from the long week, I leaned back into my big brown easy chair, across from a cracking fire and Naomi. She had a contemplative look in her eyes that I mistook for a look of blissful gratitude that she had a break with little to do, for that was what I was thinking.

Oh, it all started so innocently! She leaned toward me, and said softly, conversationally, “Dr. Wheeler, have you ever thought of writing a Christmas story?”

Unaware of my doom, and just as relaxed as she, I lazily answered, “Yes, I’ve thought of it.”

“Well, why haven’t you?” “Oh, I will – someday.”

I had not a clue about what was behind that ostensibly dreamy look in Naomi’s eyes. But now, after all these years, I’ve finally pieced it together.

Naomi was in my creative writing class, the victim of many of my deadlines during the semester. I was completely blindsided by her reversal of roles as she sat up straight, lost the dreamy look, and barked out a question that was really a command: “Why don’t you write it tonight?”

Tonight? I looked at her unbelievingly. Surely she was just kidding.

Inexorably she responded with, “Yes, tonight. It’s going to snow all weekend anyway, so what else are we going to do? Besides” – and she gave me a malicious smirk – “I want to proof your story.”

I couldn’t believe it: sweet, soft-spoken Naomi turning out to be a tyrant in disguise! But try as I did to beg off, to get out of it, Naomi was as intransigent as Gibraltar . . . and my wife, Connie, was no help either. She just laughed and sided with Naomi, so it was two against one – no, make that three against one. My last hope was that the good Lord, in His great mercy, would grant me a severe case of writer’s block – that way I wouldn’t have to write the miserable thing. But God ganged up on me, too. Virtually instantaneously, He gave me a full-blown plot. All I had to do was flesh it out and write it.

So, I dutifully wrote all evening, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday. As fast as I completed a page, Naomi would snatch it out of my hands, read it, scribble viciously on it, and hand it back, saying, “Fix it!” . . . So that was my “relaxing” weekend. Eventually we finished. The story even had a name: appropriately, we titled it “The Snow of Christmas.” The topic was a young husband who deserted his lovely wife and young daughter one Christmas.

In creative writing class that next Monday morning, Naomi took fiendish delight in regaling her classmates with the story of the weekend and she handed out copies of my story to everyone. That started a chain of dominoes that are toppling still. I gave out copies to colleagues, friends, and family –

Big mistake! For next Christmas season, people said, “Well, you wrote a Christmas story last year – so what’s keeping you from writing one this year?”

So I wrote “The Bells of Christmas Eve,” ostensibly for my American literature class. Since my students were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I wrote this Christmas romance, set in Switzerland (about a little-known interlude in Alcott’s life), as a gift to them.

No big deal! Or so it seemed.

PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).