I started doing Poet for Hire five or six years ago. It’s a very small gig, very infrequent, but a lot of fun. I’ve written love poetry, wedding poetry, birthday poetry, a poem for a mother and one rappy piece to be used as an introduction to a group.
This week someone asked me to write a poem for her, and I said no. It’s only the second time I’ve refused a gig. This poem was for a school assignment in creative writing; I guess my would-be client didn’t think she could write a good poem and decided to use my creativity instead of her own.
I understand the need to do well in school. I failed history, and resoundingly so, in grade eight. I can still remember the hot water I was in at home, the teacher’s disappointment, and my own shock when I saw that failing grade. It was 37%, by the way, so not a squeaker at all. I crashed and burned. Failure is a scary and humiliating thing.
The assignment this week included some pretty specific requirements in terms of subject, form and poetic technique, as well as a requirement for two drafts along with the finished poem, the creative writing equivalent of math’s “show your work”. It also had a tight deadline; the assignment is due November 14th.
It crossed my mind – briefly – to set an outrageous price and see what she would say. Tempting, right? I could maybe earn a painless $250 or $500, depending on her level of desperation and cash flow. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to hand over drafts, I didn’t want to give my work to this woman to claim as her own. I didn’t want to be party to fraud. So I sent her a polite refusal. I pointed out that her teacher would certainly be able to tell from comparison with her other assignments that she hadn’t written this one, and said good luck.
The only other assignment I refused was a poem for a grade nine boy’s school assignment, and it was the kid’s father who asked me to do it. I still find it hard to fathom what might have been going on in that man’s head. How important could one part of one English mark in grade nine be in a person’s academic career?
I have never understood what cheating in school gets you. The point of education, after all, is to learn something. If you don’t learn it, nobody else is going to be able to learn it for you. If you cheat on an assignment and get someone else to complete it for you, what happens when you need that skill in the real world?
Of course, the ability to write a kick-ass sonnet doesn’t exactly command the big bucks. You can starve very nicely on your skills as a poet, or as a creative writer generally. So maybe it’s not such a big deal to pay someone to write a poem for you. It’s not exactly a research paper, right? Wrong. If you want to earn your bread by your pen, you’d better be learning whatever you think can help you, and not farming it out to some hungry professional for the sake of a good grade. And if you don’t want to, then the grade doesn’t matter. Suck it up and move on. We can’t all be good at everything.
Besides, as humiliating and painful as failure is, it can be a kick in the pants. That failure in history did me good. I pulled up my socks. I got better, and I even fell in love with the whole discipline of history itself. If I had had the opportunity to pay someone else to get me a good grade, and if I’d done it, I’d have missed that lesson, and so much that has come to me through it. I’d have had an empty wallet and an empty head, both. No grade is worth that.