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Ron Charach : "Kids, Guns & Plagiarism"

Kids, Guns & Plagiarism

A Satire

The 2003 Dorothy Benjamin Memorial Essay Contest proves that all is not quite right with American youth, at least on issues of originality and plagiarism. The competition, sponsored by the parents of the ten-year-old girl who died in the crossfire during a holdup of a suburban New York Mall in 1987, draws essays from public schools across the United States. The contestants, ages thirteen through eighteen, are given but one instruction: "Construct an imaginary account of a gun-related crime so horrific that it would force the president and Congress to enact strict gun-control legislation." Students are supplied with the added caution, "Limit yourselves to imaginary (strictly fictitious) crimes that have never actually taken place on American soil. Avoid storylines from television or the movies."

Ridiculed by gun fanciers as "The Dotty B.", the contest has always had its share of detractors. Though supported by liberal groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, it is, for the most part, deplored by conservatives, who call it everything from a "grim exercise" to "a forum that elevates whining above our personal freedoms". The NRA recently denounced it as "the lowest example of liberal sensationalism and sentimentality."

This year, the contest was almost cancelled out of concern for the feelings of families victimized by the recent Washington sniper case, which continues to haunt the nation. While the Beltway shootings were grist for the mill of Contest sponsors, there was concern about offending the public in general, and specific interest groups, such as the many snipers clubs in the U.S., whose motto is, One bullet, one kill.

"But 2003 was hardly a year to take a pass on the Contest," declares this year's Contest organizer, New York-based Clifton Seagal. "It's a rare coincidence that the week of mourning our late assassinated president John F. Kennedy coincides with the trial of John Muhammad and his teen-aged sidekick Lee Boyd Malvo who held the Capitol area hostage for weeks with their random shooting spree. We fully expect, this year, that American citizens will take to the streets to protest our lack of gun laws and demand Congress finally do something about this menace to their collective safety and public health."

Perhaps because of the Beltway killings, 2003 has indeed been a bumper crop for essays. Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly in an era of declining literacy, these works are attracting attention, not just because of their grimness, but for their lack of originality and, in many cases, outright plagiarism.

"We did everything to head off at the pass every source of unoriginality", says New York-based Seagal. We spelled it out: No X-Files or Millennium crypto-sci-fi aliens, no Hannibal Lector serial killers, and please, no rban tales straight off the Internet. But what do you think happened? Kids have begun to lift stories straight from the nightly news!

"The result is the usual American d�j� vu: A disgruntled Gulf War Vet, a postal worker or a Denny's worker, shoots up his former workplace after being laid off. A paranoid student visits his former high school to slaughter three of his teachers, out of revenge for bad grades. A four-year-old shoots his kid sister to death while playing cowboys and Indians with daddy's service revolver. A student athlete from the Midwest is murdered by youths in front of his family on a big city subway platform. A family of tourists from Quebec are shot by a Florida hold-up man whose English orders they misunderstand. A 'road rage' shooting is provoked by someone's being cut off. A gang street-slaying results in the crossfire death of an innocent toddler, and so on and so forth . . . you can hardly stay awake reading such hackneyed, commonplace material.

Adds Seagal, "It's a sad, sad day when kids can't come up with something more imaginative than what their parents are watching, or were watching ten years ago on the nightly news.

One teenager had the gall to 'invent' a story of a racially motivated mass murder on a commuter train, going so far as to describe it as a 'Long island commuter train', and then pretended this event had never taken place! A second youth, a seventeen-year-old from Kansas, wrote of a child bringing a live bazooka shell into class that accidentally exploded, while a third wrote of a former G.I. peppering the White House with machine-gun fire, and again, most disturbingly, all claimed original authorship. Worst of all, a youngster from Ohio described how a cult thought to be heavily armed holed themselves up in a huge wooden compound in Texas, setting themselves on fire rather than surrendering to federal agents who had surrounded them!

Says Seagal, "I held back on the urge to challenge this youngster with 'What kind of a Waco story is this?' Instead, I wrote to ask him if he were certain that the cult he invented had intentionally set the fire, or whether the storming of the compound by Federal agents might have caused it."

He continues, "One might as well invent a deranged Montanan shooting up them insides of the Capitol Building in the very heart of our democracy - then pretend it never actually happened."

"Not only is there plagiarism out there, there's a lot of bad grammar, and spelling errors galore. Right here in America's heartland are eighteen-year-olds who can't spell 'Uzi', let alone 'Kalashnikov AK-47'-some can't even get the second half of 'Smith and Wesson' right! Very few had the savvy to mention semi-automatic pistols such as those made by Glock, Walther, Luger, Baretta or the increasingly popular machine-gun by Heckler and Koch. They don't seem to know a Colt AR from a Sturm-Ruger. Somehow we adults in America are failing to educated our charges."

He adds, winking, "It isn't plagiarism and ignorance alone that kill essays; people kill essays."

The one silver lining to the competition was its winner, who turned out, at age thirteen, to be the youngest child ever to carry off the $5,000 first-prize scholarship to the Ivy League university of her choice.

Young Cara Samples, of Newark, New Jersey, using all of her 1,000-word limit, composed an unlikely, but compelling trump on Natural Born Killers. In her tale, two boys her own age donned camouflage gear and waited in the woods, while a third boy pulled the school fire alarm. The first two boys then opened fire at their fellow students, picking off girls who in the past had broken up with them. Seagal admits that a story as sordid as this might be dismissed as sheer misogyny. But he scratches his head and deadpans, "Most gun enthusiasts think misogyny is a small town on the Mississippi." Apparently, Cara threw away another piece, about a fourteen-year-old who shot up a prayer circle in the hallway of her high school. "Regrettable. There was a make-believe story that might score points even with gun-fanciers on the religious Right."

Says Seagal, "Now, here's a kid with an imagination! Her tale artfully mixes militarism with grandiosity and media buzz, in a tale that might finally convince Americans that our insane gun policies are making us the laughingstock of the civilized world. I mean, we can't count on the Washington sniper alone to bring about action. Why, after the thirteenth victim was counted, our President offered the families of all victims his sincere prayers-no changes to the laws of the Nation, but prayers galore.

Seagal has invited Cara to write a follow-up-on the specific physical and with the help of her parents, psychological -sequelae of episodes of gun-related violence. As Cara's father, Dr. Leonard Samples, said when interviewed about his daughter's achievement, "We Americans have an insatiable appetite for violence, but very little interest in infirmity."

Seagal was heartened that there was only one entry this year disqualified on the basis of deplorable taste. "One student, who shall remain nameless, wrote of a foreign-born student who had been repeatedly bullied, who chained his fellow students inside a residence, and then massacred more than thirty of them, using two semi-automatic pistols, complete with ammo clips he had purchased on e-Bay. He then mailed a video announcing his grim feat and this video was broadcast into homes throughout the nation. We thought we'd draw the line right there between a vivid imagination and an outright morbid streak. The lad's teachers are now in touch with his parents. Trauma counsellors have been called in."

Winks Seagal, "Our prayers are with them."

- first published in Ars Medica, Fall 2004 Vol. 1, No. 1

Ron Charach's works copyright © to the author.

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