Someone came over to me and asked me about cheating in school. She wanted to know the moral implications of cheating – what it says about a person who would copy someone else’s work. And are there different levels of cheating? Is copying someone’s homework as bad as copying from someone’s test? If everyone is cheating does it make it any different?
Of course, it isn’t something I am that familiar with. Me cheat? Never.
I’ll give you a moment to get over that statement.
Truth is, and I know this will shock you, I have cheated in school. I’ve copied someone’s homework when I didn’t do mine. At the time, I don’t think I felt like I was crossing any moral line that put me on some cosmic lower level of society. I just needed to get a grade and besides, the teacher never read the homework anyway. They were just minor infractions.
But then there was this one time.
It was June. End of the school year. And I was walking to school on the morning of my Chemistry Regent. In case you aren’t familiar with it, New York State requires these end of the year subject exams called Regents. I think they still give them. Anyway, I usually took the city bus to get to school, but that day I decided to walk the 20 blocks instead.
For the record, I had studied for my Chem Regent. I even had a tutor (who years later became my brother-in-law). I wasn’t really worried for the exam. I only needed to pass.
I stopped at a corner newsstand to pick up a chocolate bar when I saw it.
There, sitting with all the newspapers, on the cover of the New York Post, were the answers to the Chem Regents. The one I was about to take.
For a moment I wasn’t sure if anyone else could see what I was seeing. I thought I was getting some kind of Divine Prophecy, right there on the corner of Bedford Avenue. But it was real. The New York Post had published the answers to that day’s exam as part of an expose on the rampant cheating on state exams. To prove their point of how easy it was to cheat, they released the exam answers in advance of the test.
So now comes the big question. Did I buy the paper that day? And if I did, did I pause before I purchased a copy of the paper? Did I wonder about the moral and ethical decision I had to make? Everyone had already seen it. My entire class had seen it. Hell, my entire grade in the state of New York had seen it. I was surprised that my school even gave us the exam that day.
I walked into school and my chem teacher was livid.
“Everyone has the answers!” he yelled.
He was right. The girl sitting next to me had written all the answers in the hem of her skirt. Another girl had them carved into her pencil.
Where was I in all this? That was the question my friend posed to me yesterday. Is it wrong to cheat even when everyone else is? If the answers to my exam are published on the front page of the newspaper, should I turn away? Or should I level the playing field and join the masses?
I thought about my Chem Regent and about that day on the street when I could have sworn God had given me a gift. And I thought about what was going through my mind that day. What debate did I have with myself? Was that moment a test of my moral fiber?
I really don’t think it was, but I still wasn’t sure how to answer my friend’s questions. After all, I’m not the morality police. And over the years, I have seen good, honest, deeply moral students hand in papers that were plagiarized. I have seen them copy someone else’s paper during a test. It’s a flaw in the human condition, not necessarily the individual.
So I came up with the worst answer an educator could probably give someone about cheating:
“I really don’t care.”
Not that I condone cheating, but ultimately, it’s the cheater who has to weigh his or her actions. I can give out consequences and speak in my disappointed, stern, teaching voice, but deciding on levels of morality – “Is this worse? Does this make it better?” – isn’t really something I need to waste time on. When the moment comes, there are lines that everyone draws regarding what they will or will not do. Copy a homework? Copy an exam? Steal an exam? Buy a newspaper with the published answers? Where those lines are drawn is what defines an individual.
Like Candide says, “We must all tend our gardens.”
I got a 98 on my Chem Regent.