She explained her son in sixth grade was entering an English speech competition and could I edit his speech.
I replied of course and even recorded the speech for him to listen to get the pronunciation right.
Last week she called me while I was on the bus. She said he passed the competition and could I help again? I asked her to email me and I would look at it as soon as possible, assuming it was something else I would edit.
She wrote the message in Chinese. When my friend translated it for me, it turned out she was asking me to write her son's assignments for him. They included two dialogues and two short speeches in English.
I really didn't feel comfortable doing the work for him. How could I, a native English speaker, write like a 14-year-old where English is his second language? So I asked my friend to reply, politely saying it would be best if he could write the assignments and then I would gladly correct them, as it would be in his best interests to learn that way.
However, the anxious mother wrote back with a desperate plea. She basically said all the other parents were writing their children's assignments; and if her son didn't do well in them, then his chances of getting into a good high school would diminish greatly. Please help me, she reiterated.
My reply was similar to the first one and she again emailed an almost identical plea.
In the end I said I couldn't write the assignments, but would be happy to edit his work.
I didn't hear back for a few days until I received her email with some attachments.
It turned out she forwarded work her friend wrote in the guise of a young student.
Not wanting to create more of a fuss I edited the assignments. Finally her son emailed a speech to me that I also corrected.
I sent them back without receiving a word of thanks.
While I can understand there's a lot of pressure for children to enter good schools here, they won't be able to survive once they get in. Or what about when they get to the next level? Will their parents have to find means other than their children's own academic ability to get into a better high school or university?
But apparently it doesn't stop there.
A month ago a biology professor from Yale University complained in an open letter to students at Beijing University complaining about widespread plagiarism.
Stephen Stearns, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, taught two classes in Beida this past fall. And despite warnings, he still found a few papers that were plagiarized outright:
It [plagiarism] corrodes my relationship with you because I work hard to be a good teacher, I take time to prepare good lectures, and I spend many hours providing detailed feedback on essays. It is hard work. You cannot imagine what it is like to correct the details of the 500th essay until you have done it yourself. I do that to help you learn to think more clearly, to express yourself convincingly, and to develop your intellectual power, your ability to understand the world. I also do it because I value you, I value your ideas, and I think the world will be a better place when you can all think clearly and behave intelligently. Later in life, some of you will be leaders with important positions. I want you to be competent and honest, for I have seen too often what terrible things can happen when leaders are incompetent and dishonest. Leadership aside, I want all of you to be able to create value in your lives, whatever you end up doing, and you cannot do that if you deceive.While some have commented that the rest of Stearns' letter is self-righteous, he has good intentions.
I also want to help. Many people here want to learn English. And in the office a number of the people I work with specifically speak English to me in order to practice their language skills.
But I cannot bring myself to help someone cheat outright, even if it hurts his chances of getting into a good school.
He will never learn what is right or wrong, or be accountable for his own academic and later work performance when his parents condone or are even complicit in trying to help him get ahead.
And he is only one of many.