Accused of Plagiarism - My Highest Compliment

It seems to me that all writers, including those who deserve to be classified as geniuses, need encouragement, particularly in their early years. I always knew I could write, but that just meant I wrote a little better than the other kids in my classes. That I might one day write well enough to derive income from my efforts, oddly enough, never occurred to me during my grade school and high school years.

There was a particular teacher at Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Illinois, who, simply by concentrating her attention on me, made me believe that I might be able to master the knack of writing well enough to consider the craft as a profession. Her name was Marguerite Byrne, and she taught English, which, of course, involved writing skills. Whatever instruction she shared with me was exactly the same as all her other students enjoyed, but the difference was she encouraged me to begin the process of submitting things I was writing, in that day, chiefly poems.

To my surprise the Chicago Times not only thought enough of several of my verses to publish them, but also paid me -- inadvertently -- the highest compliment a fledgling author can receive. The editor wrote a confidential letter to Miss Byrne, asking her to see, if by chance, one of her students -- a certain Stephen Allen -- might be guilty of plagiarism. The editor's suspicions had been aroused because, he was kind enough to say, he found it hard to believe that a seventeen-year-old could create material on such a professional level.

When Miss Byrne shared the letter with me, I was ecstatic! It was wonderfully encouraging. Maybe I really was a writer, I thought.

Miss Byrne also encouraged me to enter a contest sponsored by the CIVITAN organization. The assignment was to write an essay titled "Rediscovering America." I was literally astonished when I received a letter saying that I was the winner of the contest. The prize was a check for $100 and an invitation to an all-the-trimmings banquet at a hotel in downtown Chicago.

My mother, at the time, was not even aware that I was interested in writing, or if she had somehow found out about it, she took little notice. When I arrived back home that evening, she didn't ask how the evening had gone. I placed the $100 check on the breakfast table where she would see it when she awoke in the morning -- and went immediately to bed.

This scenario demonstrates the tremendous importance of giving young people caring attention and encouraging them to develop and practice such gifts as they might have. Years later, I was able to repay my debt to Marguerite Byrne by dedicating one of my books, Wry on the Rocks -- A Collection of Poems , to her.

On the other hand, without encouragement talented students may never be motivated to learn, develop skills, or reach their full potential. For example, at the same high school, there was a teacher whose Spanish language classes I attended but from whom I, unfortunately, learned very little simply because of the woman's cold, sarcastically critical attitude. She seemed to know nothing about encouraging students, and she was gifted at speaking contemptuously of those of us who were not learning fast enough. Her negativism drove me away. Partly because of this teacher's negative influence, I am not fluent in Spanish today.

You see, I had already learned that one can derive instructive benefit from bad examples -- by avoiding that behavior. Alcoholism was a serious problem in my mother's family. As a result of having seen enough examples of alcoholic excess in my childhood, I have never had any interest in drinking. The same applies to smoking. My poor mother was a two-pack-a-day victim of nicotine addiction, and because of the endless clouds of smoke, the coughing, the overfilled ashtrays, and the ugly smell of cigarette smoke in the house and in my clothing, I have never smoked a cigarette in my life.

Again, young writers need to be encouraged. Because of Miss Byrne's influence, I have enjoyed a lifetime of writing books, songs, and TV scripts. And guess what? I haven't plagiarized a single word of any of it.

by Steve Allen from Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul Copyright 2000 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen