THE PLAN CAME TO ME IN SEPTEMBER 1991 as I lay in my hell-hot motel-style apartment, thinking about my life and my dwindling funds. My baby wasn’t yet a year old. Michael and I were both English majors, which meant that we would be lucky to land jobs at minimum wage. A recession was on, and freelance writing assignments were very far between. Then the plan hit me like the keystroke on a manual typewriter striking a fresh sheet of paper.
One hundred thousand college students live in Austin. Surely, some must need help with their writing. I had been assisting friends for free for more than half of my life. I would start a writing tutorial service. Not only would it provide income, but it would also give me a chance to stay home with my son.
I opened S&M Ink in October. The S stood for my name, the M for Michael’s. Taking out a $90 ad in the Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper, I had the advertising department create not-so-subtle graphics that played up the company’s title. The artwork featured two hands tied together. The copy read, “In a Bind? Call S&M Ink for All Your Writing Needs.”
Waiting for the initial response made me a little nervous. My idea was to help students put together well-written papers. The services offered would vary from simply editing and typing to reading all background materials and coaxing a paper out of a student, one sentence at at time. But there was one thing I would not do. I knew that some clients would want me to write their papers for them. I swore to myself that I would not.
My first client was a coed I will call Lisa (I’ve changed all names and a few minor details to protect the guilty). She arrived at the appointed hour toting an epistle by the Italian poet Petrarch. For two nights we pored over the work. We also pored over Lisa’s family background; her hopes, dreams, plans, and schemes; and what she had for breakfast. By the time I dragged enough sentences out of Lisa for a five-page paper, typed it twice (she didn’t like my suggested wording on page five), and collected my $20, I realized I was earning about $1 an hour.
So when Bill showed up, hemmed and hawed briefly, then blurted out that he wanted a paper with none of his input whatsoever, my resolve collapsed. In fact, I sighed with relief.
A problem arose. The assignment was to analyze Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” I had studied the story to death in college. Having the gift (curse?) of a memory that loves to store useless information, I recalled microscopic interpretive details. I knew the resulting paper was far too good for a sophomore, but Bill was pleased—until he got it back without a grade.
Sure enough, Bill’s professor detected something rotten, and it wasn’t in the state of Denmark. He demanded a conference. Bill called me, panicked. This led to a phenomenon I call post-paper education. Prior to their meeting, I tutored Bill relentlessly. To help him understand the story, I created a modern-day analogy, changing the L-shaped ship’s cabin of Conrad’s invention to an L-shaped bar at a club on Sixth Street. The captain became the bartender; his questionable counterpart, a dozing drunk at the back of the bar. In that context I explained to Bill what the story was about. He learned more from that lesson than he had in any UT classroom. The professor let him off.
Tiffany was a lanky blonde, good-looking in a mall-clothes, store-bought-tan, expensive-makeup kind of way. Over the phone I agreed to tutor her, but I knew the second she walked in that my involvement would go further than that. While I looked over the assignment—it was Shakespeare—Tiffany pulled from her bag colored markers and a plastic whiskey flask. She employed the former to decorate the latter with catchy phrases like “Go UT” and “Beat OU.” Not being a native Austinite, I had no idea what an OU was or that this was a big football weekend. Her explanation brought the truth I had been waiting for. She was in a hurry to hit the road. How much would it cost to have me write the paper? I said $30. She didn’t bat a smudge-free- mascaraed lash.
Manuel netted me $75. Looking back, I think I would have preferred being dragged over hot coals. He was a foreign student, and I could barely understand his English. He needed help with a twenty-page marketing paper. I winced. Honestly, I told him, literature is my specialty. The price I quoted was an effort to scare him off. Unfortunately, he agreed to my terms.
The materials Manuel dropped off scared the hell out of me. I knew nothing of marketing, and yet I had to invent a product, develop a plan for execution, come up with selling strategies, and produce a two-year budget showing projected sales and income. After much thought, I created the Bike-a-Brella, a device to allow safer riding in the rain. Meeting after meeting, Manuel insisted on minute changes. I should have quoted him $300. Worst of all, I couldn’t get my computer to line up the numbers in the tables. Ready to quit and scrub toilets for a living, I spent 45 minutes trying to correct the problem and listening to Manuel shout frantically, “This one”—pointing out the misaligned digit—“he is all wrong!”
From that point on, I determined to stick to topics I had at least a clue about and to raise my prices to compensate for my time and misery. Nothing helped. Each paper created a new problem. The cause could be as simple as a printer malfunction or as horrifying as the realization that I really had no grasp whatsoever of my topic.
My steadiest client was the wheeler-dealer son of a New York corporate hotshot. Calvin, like so many of his buy-a-paper counterparts, came equipped with a set of ’92 wheels, Greek-lettered apparel, and a line he never wavered from: “This paper is so easy. The books are simple. You’ll really enjoy them.” More than once he fed me that line while dumping three huge books and a three-day deadline on me. But there was something oddly appealing about him. Maybe I admired his chutzpah. Or maybe I had taken on the masochistic tendencies implied by my ad.
Calvin’s parents were fully aware of my role. In fact, besides his generous monthly allowance, they supplied him with additional funds earmarked for my services. Calvin was a great source of extra income too. Many times he would borrow a friend’s notes, tell me to write two papers (making sure he got the better one, of course), and then have his buddy pay half.
The paper that most tried my creative skills was a referral from Calvin. Sheila needed an analysis of how growing up Jewish in a gentile community had affected her life. Having myself grown up in a solid Irish-Catholic neighborhood, I took on the paper as a test of my true aspiration to become an award-winning fiction writer. I called upon my memory to recount all the Jewish-experience books I’d ever read. I took myself back to seventh grade, when I attended my friend Erica’s bas mitzvah. As Sheila, I contended that it was not an easy way to grow up, but one that taught me many valuable lessons. I got a B plus.
Whenever I revealed the true nature of S&M’s services to curious friends, the question invariably arose, “Can’t you get in trouble?” Scrutiny of the university’s plagiarism policy led me to doubt that. The policy requires students to do their own work, but outside sources are allowed. I told myself that if I was ever found out, I could explain that I considered my manuscripts to be mere monographs—background material that the students could use as they saw fit. What I couldn’t understand was the students’ lack of concern. Once I was asked to write five papers for the same class. Not only that, but every student handed me an identical set of photocopied notes. I warned each student that the wording might sound similar in at least a few instances. I strongly suggested that they have the papers retyped so at least the print would look different. No one complained, and no one got caught.
After writing papers for money grew boring and frustrating, I decided to stop. I wish I could say that the reason was the lack of honor, but it was more the lack of sleep. I felt like some caffeine-driven madwoman pulling perpetual all-nighters. But when I moved and changed my phone number, students found me. They begged me. Money became no object. Reluctantly, I continued. Nazi Germany, capital punishment, AIDS, abortion—stuff that sometimes interested me but that always had to be examined in an unsatisfying and unsophisticated way. There were times I would drink more than a couple of beers before starting, in hopes that my work would attain the appropriate level of intellect and learning for a nineteen-year-old.
I realized that I had become a sort of expert—not in any subject, but in college-speak. I could create what appeared to be a well-thought-out piece on almost any topic. Let’s say I wanted to analyze my son’s favorite book, Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. I could present seven surefire papers on this masterwork: Christian influence (the image of three fish in a tree and its relevance to the Trinity); sexual ethics (Mr. Brown, eating suspiciously phallic snacks, leaves his wife to cavort with Mr. Black); death imagery (Is Mr. Black actually a dark symbol of death that befalls those seeking unconventional sex?); sexism (Why do the brothers and father read while mother stands by mute?); racism (Mr. Brown and Mr. Black as indicators of interracial relationships); philosophical pondering (When Will goes uphill, does the hill become his property? Would Locke argue that this path leads away from happiness?); and finally, good versus evil (The children claim that it is fun to hop on Pop. Pop says, “Stop, you must not hop on Pop!” Who is right?). Any—better yet, all—of these thoughts sandwiched between opening and closing paragraphs that say exactly the same thing in slightly altered ways would, I guarantee, net me at least a C, often a B.
What does this say about our institutions of higher learning? I used to think American school systems were excellent. I loved school and did well, smothered in teacher approval. But education had failed the students I saw. Most didn’t give a damn about English, philosophy, or history. Partying and fashion aesthetics were their priorities. My clients rarely cracked a book.
It seems obvious that students who get enough individual attention and who come to love reading learn more in school and on their own. The problem with a place like UT—the reason I could write five papers for one class and not get caught—is that hundreds of students are often crammed into one-hour sessions with a professor who never bothers to learn a name or a face. Teaching assistants (students themselves) grade papers and offer what little one-on-one contact occurs. The pleasure of learning for me always lay in direct interaction with the teacher. Personal banter stimulated me and inspired me to seek further information on my own. My clients had no idea how to relate to a professor. When I realized how many students do poorly because they lack the ability to catch on quickly and have no one to help them, it was, as we English majors say, an epiphany.
These days, the message is that you need a degree to get a job. And you need passing grades to get a degree. It’s not written anywhere that you need knowledge or even common sense. Many professors use the same reading assignments and the same lectures year after year and get away with it. Colleges often resem- ble factories that pump out students who have no working knowledge of their major.
When S&M Ink first opened, I tried to rationalize why I shouldn’t feel guilty about helping others cheat. But I knew my real reason was something very basic: the survival instinct. Tutoring was something that I could do to provide my family with extravagant things in life, such as food, shelter, and an occasional batch of clean laundry. In retrospect, I believe that maybe I did some good too. I’m convinced that some of my clients learned more about how to analyze literature and history from discussing their assignments with me and going over the papers that I wrote for them than they learned from their bored, impersonal professors.
I can already hear angry voices accusing me of contributing to the problems in education. They’ll say those who sell papers are not simply cheating the system, they’re cheating other students. They’ll say people like me are scum. But I can think of worse offenses. I’ll remind myself of all the lousy teaching going on at colleges everywhere and the scholarships offered not for brain power but rather muscle power. Finally, I’ll think about my brother-in-law the cop and his response when I complained about a speeding ticket. He said, “People like you always think cops should be out catching rapists. And rapists think they should concentrate on murderers.” Maybe murderers think cops ought to be after serial killers. It’s an interesting idea. I bet it would make a swell paper.