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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lantos

Helping Students Cheat

I just had a really weird experience.

I was searching for my 2016 essay about Henrietta Lacks. To critique Rebecca Skloot’s book about Ms. Lacks and her family, Skloot’s book is commonly assigned on college campuses today. I draw on Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The poem is about the ways that nothing is ever just one thing and many things are not what they initially seem to be. It seemed right. There are many ways to think about the justice considerations that arise in the commercial use of human tissues.

The really weird experience was that most of the “hits” that my search generated were from websites that sell essays to college students. On these websites, you can specify your grade level, the topic, the length of essay that you want, and how soon you need it. Prices vary. I could see that my essay was sometimes assigned, and students were asked to why they agree or disagree with me. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or disturbed that my essay has found a niche in this market.

In the essay, I use the phrases from Stevens to ask questions about racism, informed consent, and the commercialization of products derived from human tissues. Stevens calls upon us to “cry out sharply.” I note, “It is a travesty that the Lacks family doesn’t have health insurance." But I also note that, if researchers had never taken used Ms. Lacks cells, her children would still lack health insurance. But now they have polio vaccine. They, like the rest of us, benefit from the valuable scientific discoveries that were made using HeLa cells. At a recent symposium, Jeri Lacks, Henrietta’s granddaughter, spoke movingly about this. “Her cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and to treat HIV, and in creating in vitro fertilization. She is a person who continues to give life, and to preserve life,” said Lacks. “No matter what your race, your age, your social circumstances, she continues to improve your life.”

Stevens writes that “it was evening all afternoon.” I note that the tale of the Lacks family is both light and dark. The most moving passage in the book, for me, is the one where Skloot meets the most suspicious and hostile of Ms. Lacks grandchildren, Zakariyya. Zakariyya had previously told Skloot that he wished the Hopkins scientists would burn in hell. But then she gives him a photograph of his grandmother’s cells with the DNA stained in bright colors. Skloot writes, “Zakariyya’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment, the dark circles vanished, and his body relaxed. “Yeah,” he said, in a small voice unlike anything we’d heard that day. He put his arm on Deborah’s shoulder. “Hey, thanks.”

Then he walked slowly back to his building, holding the picture in front of him at eye level, seeing nothing ahead but the DNA in his mother’s cells.”

I hope that students read the book. I’m glad to know that my thoughts might help them organize theirs. I’m tickled that they can buy an essay based on mine. I hope not many pre-written essays sell and that most students struggle through the tough process of writing their own.

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