When I was in school, I had a bizarre experience involving cheating. As a preface: most of my classes were useful, and most of my teachers were dedicated. However, in a class which I shall not name, I remember an answer sheet being passed around during a ten-question quiz. The answer sheet literally went around the whole room. I had my eye on the teacher, and he seemed oblivious at his desk—either grading or reading. When the answer sheet got to me, I shook my head, indicating that I didn’t want it. “Pass it, then,” the person behind me whispered, irritated.
I shook my head again.
“Just pass it!”
By that time, the whispering got so loud that the person in front of me simply reached behind me to retrieve the answer sheet. It continued its way around the room as the teacher continued to be distracted by whatever at his desk was so captivating.
Our teacher graded the quizzes while we worked on the next activity, and then, at the end of the class, we reviewed the answers from the quiz. When the bell rang, I was asked to stay after class. I assumed my teacher was going to ask me who was in charge of passing around the answer sheet—he had to have known! But he didn’t. He asked me why I, one of his best students, had earned a 70% on the quiz when every other student earned a 100%.
At first I thought he was testing me. I couldn’t believe he was so oblivious as to not have seen the cheat sheet. But it was true—he honestly thought that the entire class had so absorbed his teachings that every student earned a 100%—except for me. It dawned on me that he was admonishing me for not studying. But in actuality, what he was admonishing me for was… not cheating.
In the past, I’d never seen much valiancy in my refusal to cheat—though I didn’t believe in cheating in school and had refused cheating many times, it was just a choice I made. But the conundrum I found myself in perplexed me. Here I was, being called a bad student when in reality I should have been praised for my honesty. I felt that my character was being assaulted, but what were my options? Did I really want to be the snitch? In the grand scheme of life, what was a ten-question quiz, or my score on it, for that matter? For a moment, the answer flashed in my mind: the rest of the class had cheated.
But my voice refused to obey.
“I was distracted,” I mumbled. This was true. “I’m also bad at multiple-choice questions.” This was also true. I could second-guess my way out of a 100% on a multiple-choice quiz any day. I finished up with an excuse involving a late-night project for AP French. All half-truths.
The story ended with me quickly re-taking the quiz (the one we had just reviewed), scoring a 90%, and receiving a pass to my next class.
But I was disturbed enough by the incident to remember it over a decade later. In a single class period, I had managed to annoy my fellow classmates and perplex my teacher—all by being honest. There was some unwritten law I was sinning against. It was surreal and disturbing.
Is cheating in schools the status quo? This particular teacher had been teaching for over 30 years. Had he subconsciously convinced himself that cheating was okay? Or was he that far removed from reality that cheating wasn’t even a possibility?
When I originally set out to write The Scarred Letter, I wanted Heather’s struggle to be set against an academic cheating ring that funneled well-connected students to college; but I was told by numerous people that no one would care enough about academic cheating to pick up the book. Thus, I decided on cheating in sports instead. Sports are something everyone can be involved in—something everyone can see. Cheating in academics is sneakier and less obtrusive. But the damage is still the same.
By cheating in school, students are making the decision that learning is not important—that the particular facts or concepts being tested do not matter. That only the grade is important. That life is a system to be gained, a game to be played.
But for me, it’s not a matter of morals in the sense that one should do what one has been taught is “right.” For me, it’s about having personal integrity—that one draws empowerment from using one’s inner strength to accomplish things in life.
In The Scarred Letter, one of the football players has been working very hard to get better at the game, but he is distressed that some of the players have taken steroids. Protagonist Heather Primm tries to convince him to come forward about the cheaters, but he feels that same social pressure that I felt—the stigma against being “the snitch.” But for Heather, it’s not about snitching. It’s about people working with and being rewarded for their inner strength. It’s about the truth. And, like me, Heather is left to wonder about the adults in charge at the school. Do the coaches really have no idea that cheating is taking place on their team, or are they turning a blind eye in favor of success?
Heather is stronger than I was in high school, but she faces consequences I avoided. Still, it strikes me that cheating—in all forms—is dependent on a societal acceptance of it When a potential cheater asks to copy homework, the student being asked can either give in to social norms (allow the cheating) or be stigmatized as a stuck-up, goody-goody snitch. In high school, when I was asked if someone could copy my homework, others sometimes answered for me: she doesn’t allow it. The way they said it made it seem like I had a horrible disease, like there was something wrong with me. I was the one doing wrong, not the cheater. In our society, and in high school especially, we make it harder to do the “right” thing than the wrong. One who stands up for the truth is subjected to gossip, ridicule, and bullying.
And that is something Heather Primm finds unacceptable. Her struggles at Orchard Valley High School attest to it.