Birthdays can be pretty stressful ordeals. Since they only come around once a year, there's a lot of pressure to make them the best day ever, so if anything goes awry or if things don't live up to our expectations, it's easy to feel really disappointed because, well, it's our birthday for crying out loud.
In Sandra Cisneros' short story, 'Eleven,' we get a front row seat to this kind of disappointment as a young girl named Rachel's eleventh birthday goes from bad to worse during a day at school. All she has to do is make it through the day so she can go home for an evening of cake, presents, and birthday fun. Of course, if you've ever waited an entire day for cake, you know this won't be easy. And it doesn't get any easier for poor Rachel as her teacher, Mrs. Price, forces her into a humiliating social predicament by making her wear an ugly red sweater that isn't hers.
That's it. That's the plot. It's not much because this short story is only four pages (twenty-two paragraphs) long. In fact, it might be more accurate to consider this a vignette or work of flash fiction. But amazing stories often come with small word counts (we're looking your way, Chekhov), and Cisneros' tale is no exception. Even though it's short, sweet, and to the point, young Rachel's social struggle has left long-lasting impressions on many a reader.
Sandra Cisneros is known as a pivotal writer in the Chicana literature movement, but what lead this progressive and experimental author to write what is essentially a children's story? Simple: A publisher in Boston asked her to write one. As Cisneros tells the story:
I sat down to write a story for children. […]. I sent it off, and I immediately received a reply that rejected the story, saying it was not for children. As it turns out, it is the story that people request the most and the one that children understand the most (source).
That story, "Eleven," would eventually find a permanent home in Cisneros' 1991 collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and is the tale we're here to analyze in all our Shmoopy glory.
Thanks to "Eleven" and its companion stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros was awarded the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction in 1991 as well as the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. The collection was also listed as a noteworthy book that year in The New York Times and The American Library Journal.
From rejection to wide critical acclaim, the history of "Eleven" is as much a tale about change as the story itself. Take that, haters.
One of the best things about reading is that moment when you read a passage, set down the book, and think, "That's true. That's utterly, entirely, completely true; I just never put that thought into words before." There are a lot of moments like that to be found in "Eleven," which is part of why we love the story so much.
Take a look at this passage right at the start of the story when our narrator, eleven-year-old Rachel, tells us:
What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. (1)
It's a wonderful way to think about growing up. Some days you may feel extra childish—as Rachel explains, that's the ten-year-old part of you. You don't stop being ten when you turn eleven. Instead, you incorporate ten-year-old you into who you are and who you will become. Some days you may feel like crying for no reason at all, just because. That's the three-year-old part of you. And some days you may feel like being older will solve all your problems, and that's the part of you that never goes away.
Since growing up is something we all must do—no exceptions, no exclusions, no refunds—this story can speak to all of us, whether we're eleven-year-old girls or not. Sure, we might not know the embarrassment of having a teacher force us to wear an ugly, old sweater that smells of cottage cheese, but chances are we have all suffered similar embarrassments. Don't even get us started on those stupid monkey bars. Or middle school P.E. Or that one time at band camp.
"Eleven" isn't trying to create a philosophy, comment on a current event, or deconstruct a cultural bias (with that said, other stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories may fall into these categories). Instead, it's trying to describe an emotional experience, one shared by all of us forced to take part in that grand experiment called growing up—which is something we can all relate to.
If you attended high school in the late nineties and early aughts, it's likely that you used the family computer in the den to type up your essays or do research. It's also likely that much of your time "doing research" was actually tooling around on AOL with an open Microsoft Word window so if your parents walked in you could smoothly play it off like you were truly doing work.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
EssayTyper is a site that allows you to plug in virtually any subject, then brings you to a Word-style webpage where you can write your essay. But you don't have to "write" anything. Not technically. Just bang on the keyboard and words appear.
Go ahead, try it. I used "economics" then pressed that button on the right.
Immediately, a paper appears.
The title is prewritten: "Innovative or Simply Post-Modern?"
And then, some computer magic.
Just start banging on keys.
Bang on the home keys, bang on the number keys. Press enter! Press delete! What will they think of next?
And here's a look at what's happening on the screen:
It's very fun, but we wondered if students were actually trying to pass off these generated papers as their own.
See, the first sentences of "Truly Jobs" (all EssayTyper papers are pre-titled) reads as follows:
Steven Paul "Steve" Jobs was an American pioneer of the personal computer revolution of the 1970s. He would come to be known as the entreprenur, marketer, and inventor, and cofounder, chairman, and finally CEO of Apple Inc. who transformed "one industry after another, from computers and smartphones to music and movies.
And a quick search proved it was just a rewrite of Jobs' Wikipedia page. So was our EssayTyper paper on Business Insider, and "Mad Men."
In 2012, The Atlantic published "Write My Essay, Please!" uncovering the truth behind sites similar to EssayTyper and the people who use them.
"Essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education," Richard Gunderman explains in the Atlantic piece. "The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place."
While EssayTyper is free, and pretty useful for fooling your parents into thinking you're actually sitting on the computer and doing legitimate work, Gunderman says the bevvy of sites out there that appoint real people to write term papers for students is alarming. And, he points out, paying someone to write an essay for you isn't technically plagiarism.
"In this case, assuming the essay-writing services are actually providing brand-new essays, no one else's work is being stolen without consent," Gunderman writes. "It is being purchased. Nevertheless, the work is being used without attribution, and the students are claiming credit for work they never did. In short, the students are cheating, not learning."
A quick Google search for "how to find out if student is plagiarizing" serves up tons of tips and tricks for exhausted teachers and parents. A site called PlagTracker lets you type in a phrase or sentence to run against the rest of the internet. I copied and pasted the first sentence of "my" Steve Jobs essay.
The process took about twenty seconds (and PlagTracker offered to speed it up if I paid.) Here were the results.
My content was "81% plagerized from 5 sources," but none of those sources were listed as Wikipedia.
Brooklyn Friends School teacher Kathleen Clinchy agrees that while technology has made it easier to cheat, it's now a lot harder to definitively catch a cheater. She says resorting to old-school interrogation is the way to go.
In an email to Business Insider, Clinchy tells us:
It gets a little tricky because you don't want to accuse a student of cheating, so being able to have a conversation with strategic questioning is a good skill to have as a teacher. In younger grades, like middle school, you can get the parent involved and just ask them to revise the work together (AKA make sure your child stops cheating), but high school is a little murkier.
You also need to watch for students copying or plagiarizing each other too — that's where you just give the kids their papers back together with highlighted similar sentences and just stare at them until they talk.
But Bay Gross, founder of EssayTyper, has made sure to caveat his service to take any potential blame off of himself and the site. "Please don't ever try to use this legitimately," he says on the site. "The magic part is not real ... and that's plagiarism."