My clients never fail to amuse.
"Can I have a military discount?" one asked.
"Do you give student discounts?" asked another.
No and no, I thought, hitting Delete on those e-mails. In the business of doing other people's homework, there are no discounts of any kind. (Who needs my services besides students, anyway?) All sales are final, and all payment is upfront. No one gets free credit — well, they get credit from their instructors, plus high grades and lots of compliments.
I entered this business purely by accident. A victim of the craptastic economy, I've done all sorts of things for money. I've cleaned maggots out of other people's kitchens. I've scraped cat poop off carpets. I've watched small screaming children for hours at a time. But doing college homework for cash? That one took me by surprise. It began innocently. Having tutored writing at a small private school, I decided to offer my services to the larger market via Craigslist. Soon, a prospect contacted me.
"Can you just write the paper for me? I'd pay $100," my new client wrote. She wanted a compare/contrast essay about Charles Dickens and had little interest in reading "Oliver Twist" or "Great Expectations." She moaned about her great-grandma's hunting accident/funeral and her busy weekend party schedule. I couldn't have cared less about her motivations. She had me at $100.
My next client, whom I actively solicited on Craigslist, wanted me to write an ethics paper. She had no idea this entailed irony of any kind. She had no idea what the word "irony" meant, until I used it in her essay and sent her a link to a dictionary definition.
The ad I used to land the ethics student promised custom work by Ivy League grads. (I went to an Eastern Seaboard safety school. Sorry, there's no honor among cheaters.) The work flooded in. I wrote about Dickens and Hawthorne, having to re-read the latter and discovering anew my hatred for his old-school misogynist claptrap. I wrote about poetry and literature and then branched out into chemistry, despite having no scientific background. I found that my ability to do research, a chore when I was a student in the 1990s, has greatly improved now that I can skip slogging to the library and find scholarly articles online from the comfort of my sofa. I did a paper on the geochemistry of the Gulf Coast oil spill for a student in Florida. He failed when it came to paying my fee, but he got an A on the paper.
Still, I marvel that the students who actually do pay will spend so much money on something they could do themselves. I realize that not all my clients shell out their own fees: Parents, spouses and siblings often provide the cash. Who knows if the folks at home footing the bill know what they're buying for Junior at the state university? At least one mother contacted me to do her son's high school geometry homework. Fortunately, I don't do math (rather, I can't do math), so I sidestepped that sad moral dilemma. While I'm happy to do college and grad school work, doing high school work — especially work contracted by a parent so unimpressed with her own child's intellect that she's trawling Craigslist — seems deeply wrong. Disturbingly wrong, like something akin to child abuse. My college students and grad students don't affect me that way. They're adults. They're ruined already.
Oh, I feel some guilt, but I don't kid myself about their squandered potential. Hey, I wish I could take out another student loan for a grad degree; meanwhile, these folks are going to college as some forced vocational exercise. But I know that I'm cheating instructors out of real a relationship with students — that I might be seducing those educators into thinking the students have real ideas, that the kid actually "gets it." Instead it's me who's benefiting from all these "studies": They've opened my mind to science and serious literature again. I realize now that I'd rather earn a living with my mind — even in a shady, dishonest way — than continue to do physically demanding unskilled work for wages that don't support me.
Some of these clients become real people to me, and they are the ones who haunt me. Many speak English as a second language. The private school where I tutor part-time for $9 an hour also has its share of ESL kids, and I can't help but think of my online clients whenever I tutor a real student. No matter how awkward my legitimate students' first drafts may be, I respect them — at least they do their own work. When I help an ESL student, I try to have more patience. I let them know that their English is better than my Mandarin or Swahili, and that speaking another language fluently — let alone taking the time to learn to write well in a foreign language — is an accomplishment few American college students even attempt. So I know I could help Thi (from Cambodia) and Ali (from Saudi Arabia) learn to write their own papers. Sadly, that's not what they want to pay me for.
I make jokes about this work, trying to rationalize it to friends and even to myself. I sell my services under the pseudonym "Charles Darwin," and not a single client seems to realize that's not my real name. I've also proofread and fixed papers (a lesser evil, I tell myself). I feel that sparing an instructor these sentences may redeem me:
"World War II happened hundreds of years ago."
"Hitler had some good ideas — in a business-y kind of way."
Will I continue this work long term? I hope not. The truth is, I feel sad and angry that I have so few options to use my education to make a living. Despite having published a book and written for national magazines, finding full-time work as a writer has been next to impossible. I love writing, but I also love writing for an audience that acknowledges the work and responds to it. Friends who know about this sideline ask what kind of grades the papers get. I usually respond flippantly: "I don't care as long as they pay." This isn't entirely true. When people tell me they got A's, I feel proud — and then, of course, ashamed. But also, $100 to $150 richer.
Will I give you a discount? No. Will I do your ethics homework? If you meet my quote, sure! Will I still respect myself in the morning? I have to. I'm all I've got, and I will do whatever it takes to avoid living in my car and eating cat food. (And to satisfy my middle-class aspirations: I still want cable television and a good cell plan, sadly.) I've learned that people will do almost anything to avoid work they don't enjoy, and if that includes paying me to do it for them, then I'll take advantage of that. I've tried manual labor, and the stress of living within a hair's breadth of homelessness at all times made me physically ill. I just want to make enough money to keep body and soul apart. Now that phrase I didn't write; I stole it from Dorothy Parker.