Stolen Words


He wouldn’t think of stealing money. He was a different kind of thief.

Stolen Words

Maybe this move won’t be so bad after all, Tanya thought as she watched Josh Tartello walk to the front of her fourth period creative writing class.

It was Tanya’s first day at Washington High, but she’d already met Josh in early-morning seminary. It was a small class—only seven kids strong, and they represented the entire LDS population at Washington. The interesting thing was that they all seemed to stand out in something. The Mormons were well known. Let’s see, there was the president of the jazz band, the captain of the swim team, the school newspaper editor—she couldn’t remember them all. But there was no way she could forget Josh, the junior class president with curly black hair and crystal blue eyes to die for.

What luck to come across him in creative writing—especially since it was a subject she felt confident in. She’d feel relaxed with the subject matter, and maybe be more relaxed about getting to know Josh. Was that a smile he flashed at her as he began to read his most recent fiction composition?

“Hey, Matt, where’d he come from?” Josh began, reading the first line from his story. Beginning with an interesting question—not a bad lead, Tanya thought, as she settled down to listen to the rest. The story was set around a basketball game and involved two guys—one with a bad mouth, and one with a bad attitude. They ended up resolving their problems. It was a good story, but it sounded vaguely familiar. Had she heard it before somewhere?

Just as the teacher congratulated Josh, Tanya’s stomach lurched. She realized where she’d seen the story. It was the fiction piece from the New Era a couple of months back. She was almost sure. Before she jumped to any conclusions though, she would go home and check it. After all, there was the remote possibility she was imagining things.

“Hey, Mom, do you know where the box with all the old Church magazines is?” Tanya called as she walked into the living room of their new apartment. There were boxes stacked everywhere, and her mom was kneeling over one of them, looking exasperated.

“I can’t even find my purse, and you want to know where the Church magazines are?” she asked incredulously. “Looks like you’re going to have to find them on your own, and if you come across my purse, let me know. Otherwise I don’t know what we’ll do for dinner tonight.”

Tanya realized that helping her mother unpack all those cartons was probably a little more important at the moment than checking to see if Josh had copied his paper. In a way, Tanya didn’t want to know. Mom had stayed home from work that day to try to get things organized, so Tanya decided to dig in and help.

With a new school, a new ward, and a new apartment to get used to, checking on Josh’s story soon dropped to the bottom of Tanya’s priority list. Besides, Josh was being friendly to her and had introduced her to all his friends. She almost forgot about the plagiarism issue entirely—until it was Josh’s turn to read another paper in front of the class.

“There they were again. Those ten white pins—staring straight at me,” he began.

This time there was no doubt in her mind. Tanya remembered well that story about bowling. She’d identified with it when she read it in the New Era, because she’d had a similar experience. Now she was positive Josh was lifting his stories from the New Era. What should she do?

She was too agitated to let it drop this time. She waited for him at the door of the classroom and walked into the hall with him. “Uh, Josh,” she began, not really knowing what direction she would take. “Your story—it was good, but it sounded kinda familiar.”

“I had a feeling you’d catch on to what I was doing,” Josh said, looking very apologetic. “There are only seven other people in this school who read the New Era, and it’s just my luck to have one of them in my class. I know it looks bad, but let me explain. Buy you lunch?” he asked.

How could Tanya resist? As they made their way to the cafeteria, Josh tried to explain.

“It’s not like I lifted it directly,” he said. “I took out all the parts that talked about the Church so it wouldn’t confuse Ms. Dougherty. She doesn’t know anything about the Church, and I didn’t want to have to explain.”

“She’d get a pretty bad impression of the Church if you had to explain that one of her star LDS students was plagiarizing.”

“Exactly!” Josh cried. “Well, not exactly. I don’t really feel like I stole it, since I did change it a little bit. Besides, you know the LDS kids are pretty well respected at this school. How would we look if one of us was caught cheating? You know the story would be all over the campus in five minutes.”

By that time they’d made their way to the cafeteria line and students were crowding everywhere. By mutual understanding, they dropped the conversation for a while as they chose their lunches. Tanya really wasn’t hungry, so all she took was yogurt and corn chips. She felt strange about letting Josh pay.

As Josh carried their tray to a table in the corner by a window, Tanya said, “You know, in the time it took you to copy those stories, you probably could have come up with something pretty good of your own.”

“You might be right,” Josh agreed. “But I just didn’t have the mental energy. Look, with all the things I have to do for church, for seminary, for student council, for the soccer team, for my family—I’ve got to coast somewhere. I need a good grade in this class. For my sake, and for the sake of the LDS reputation at this school, couldn’t you please just let it drop for now?” Josh was almost pleading.

And Tanya was almost taking it in—almost. What bothered her was the fact that Josh had worked long and hard to come up with every reason imaginable to justify what he was doing and to keep the truth from getting out. At this point, he seemed more worried about getting caught than about being honest.

“What’s the worst that could happen to you if you tell Ms. Dougherty you copied those stories?” Tanya asked. “Maybe she’d be so happy with your honesty that she’d let you do those assignments over again.”

“You’re dreaming,” Josh replied. “I’d probably get an F in the class, which would blow my whole GPA, I’d get suspended for a couple of days, and I’d get kicked off student council and the soccer team. That would look great on my record. I’d probably never get into college.”

“You feel good about cheating to get into college?”

“C’mon, everyone cheats once they get there. You can hire people to write your papers for you. Fraternities have files of tests and papers you can use any time. Borrowing ideas from the New Era is small-time stuff compared to that.”

“I guess everyone starts somewhere,” Tanya said quietly, more to herself than to Josh. She’d finished her yogurt but hadn’t touched her chips. She stood up.

“So what are you going to do?” Josh asked, looking up at her with those crystal blue eyes to die for.

“I’m going to start doing what’s best for everyone,” she replied, as she slowly walked away.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus