During a recent visit to our home, my wife’s grandmother asked me, “Did you ever cheat in school? “Absolutely,” I said.
“Oh good,” she said. “I can’t stand those people who say they never cheated.”
Though my response was immediate, I can recall just two incidents of cheating in my lifetime, if I don’t count the various term papers and book reports that I sold to classmates and wrote for girlfriends back in high school.
I think of those incidents more as entrepreneurial endeavors and at attempts flirting.
And yes, that’s right. I wrote term papers as a means of flirting with girls. You can imagine how successful I was.
The first incident of cheating, one involving Herman Melville’s Omoo and a book report, is chronicled in a previous post.
The second incident occurred during my sophomore year of high school, and while I didn’t mean to hurt anyone in the process, I most certainly did.
Part of my science class requirement that year was to enter the school’s science fair. At the time I had no desire to enter the fair, and I had even less desire to win. I found the requirement arbitrary and simply a means by which the science department could guarantee participation in their science fair, so I responded to the assignment as I responded to most assignments in high school:
With a couple days to go before the fair and no project even started, I saw a news story about the recent famine in Ethiopia. The report explained that poor crop management had caused the Ethiopian soil to wash away, leaving farmers with nothing in which to grow their crops. I wondered if new soil could be imported or if they Ethiopians could synthesize new soil with its varying components.
The idea of synthesizing soil from its basic components popped into my head, and at last I had a science fair topic. A good one, too.
Less than 48 hours before the science fair.
It might have been an interesting project had I given myself enough time to complete it, but absent the time required to grow plants, I went into my backyard and extracted soil from two different locations: the pine forest behind the house and the field adjacent to he barn. Both soil types looked different enough, so I declared one naturally-occurring soil and the other synthesized soil of my own making and labeled them accordingly.
Then I went back into the pine forest and plucked several ferns of various sizes, placing the smaller ones in the naturally-occurring soil and the taller ones in my self-proclaimed synthesized soil.
Experiment complete, I spent the rest of the evening forging data, writing a brief report and constructing a display. The next day I went to school with my finished project, and that evening, I was manning my post, ready to meet the judges and explain my project to them.
I was a little nervous about being exposed as a fraud in the eyes of the judges, but I felt that I had faked enough material to satisfy the class’s requirement. That was my one and only goal.
Yet in a shocking turn of events, I somehow managed to place third in the science fair. I have always been a good public speaker, and I am adept at thinking fast and talking even faster, and I think it was these skills that vaulted me to my third place finish.
I still have the trophy that I was awarded that night.
My fellow winners of the science fair included a classmate named Eric who built a shift-weight golf club and a junior named Mike who I knew well from our Scouting days. Mike had taken first place for building a homemade radon detector.
Standing alongside Eric and Mike, I felt like a fraud. A clever fraud, but a fraud nonetheless.
Even worse, the top three finishers in our science fair were given the opportunity to bring our projects to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to compete in the statewide fair. I was awarded a day off from school to spend wandering the exhibit halls of WPI with my friends, checking out the other science fair projects and presenting my own to the judges.
Though I was still nervous about presenting a falsified science fair project to a group of actual scientists, I managed to win an honorable mention and took home a $150 savings bond.
I’ve always felt rather clever about the success of my science fair scheme, but I’m also aware that I took the rightful place of someone much more deserving.
Someone who had actually completed the work.
It was the last time I ever cheated in school.
Now I am left with this question:
Someday Clara is going to ask me the same question that her great grandmother asked a couple weeks ago.
Did you ever cheat in school?
What am I to tell her?
Should I be honest and tell her the stories of my successful malfeasance, encouraging her to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, or should I lie to her until she is an adult and less susceptible to the potential corruption of a beloved father?
Cheating has become considerably more difficult in today’s world. with economists and statisticians now able to detect cheating by students and teachers simply by examining a class’s test scores.
In the world that Clara will grow up, the risks are more considerable than my days in high school.
Case in point: More than 200 students at the University of Central Florida recently came forward to admit to cheating after their professor gave a lecture on ethics in response to a statistical examination of midterm grades.
It’s quite a lecture:
So what's a father to do?
An honest account of my moral failings or a dishonest representation with the intent of providing my daughter with a better role model than I actually am?
I am not sure. And I probably have less than ten years to figure it out.