Confessions of a Grade A Cheater
Equations, betrayal, and deceit
In my family, we consider that a person’s value lies in their intellect and that the best way to measure it is with academic performance. My grandfather Aníbal would always greet me with “So how are your grades?” before proceeding to hug me. I’d happily answer, as he’d reward me with cold, hard cash for each of my A’s. For a B, I’d get nothing, of course, as everyone knows that’s a gateway to drugs, teenage pregnancy, and being a supermarket cashier for the rest of your life.
I loved being the perfect student. Whenever a teacher praised me or used my work as an example in class, I felt an adrenaline rush. I mastered the art of studying, acing exams, and being the teacher’s pet. I didn’t care about whether my outfit matched or fitting in with the other kids, but I felt deep shame whenever I made a silly mistake on a test.
In 2006 I started my university degree. This is seen in my family as THE fundamental achievement of your life. After this, what you do and say will finally start to have some value for society.
I was studying physics, a.k.a. the mother of all intellectual enterprises. My goal was to become the next Einstein or Feynman. Maybe not as famous, but definitely with a Nobel prize.
I studied all the time. I gave up hobbies, attachments, and having a life.
But during my first exam, Linear Algebra, it became clear to me that not all of my colleagues were as dedicated. I was engrossed in question 3.a), ferociously scribbling away on my exam sheet, when I heard someone almost inaudibly calling out my name. I pretended not to hear it and continued arranging my matrices and eigenvalues on the paper, only to be startled by a tap on the shoulder. I looked back and saw that it was Miguel, who I’d met on the first day of university. We’d bonded over movies, philosophy, and politics, and we’d been lunch buddies and desk partners ever since.
“What’s the answer to 1.d)?” Miguel whispered, his eyes beaming with complicity.
1.d) was a multiple-choice question. The answer was C. I was sure of it.
I smiled back and whispered “B!” while tracing the letter in the air with my finger to make sure he got it. I answered because I didn’t want my good friend to think I was an asshole. But I also didn’t want him to succeed when he didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t going to enable cheating.
He gave me the thumbs up with a sigh of relief, and I went back to solving 3.a).
For the following year, I’d go on to ace all my courses undisturbed. But then, I fell victim to that most distracting of ailments: love. I fell head over heels for my colleague João, who had this huggable, teddy bear-like quality about him, and an adorable inability to look me in the eye. We started dating right before the final exam period of our second year of university. We were in a full-blown honeymoon phase. So, during the weeks that I was supposed to spend studying, I was giggling, having picnics in the park, gazing at the birthmark on João’s face…
Fast-forward those weeks, and I found myself stuck, right in the middle of proving a theorem during the Fluid Mechanics exam. The previous evening I’d tried to cram it all in my head, but it obviously hadn’t been enough. I couldn’t remember what came after this equation. But I knew that I was so close to the answer… If I could just get a little bit of help, I could get that question right, and that’d be enough for a decent grade. And as luck would have it, I knew exactly where to find the answer in my notebook. The notebook which was currently inside the bag right by my feet…
I looked up at the professor. He was reading some papers on his desk.
I looked around. I was sitting alone in my row, and nobody could see my feet.
It felt like a sign from the Universe, an opportunity I had to seize. So very gently, with the stealth of a pickpocket, I opened my bag, pulled the notebook out, laid it on my lap, and found the page I needed. With my heart pounding, I hurriedly copied the equations.
As nobody seemed to have noticed, I quickly checked a couple of other proofs that I needed before putting the notebook back.
When the time came to hand in the exam, I stared at the floor the whole time so that the professor wouldn’t see the blood rushing to my face in a mix of fear, shame, and guilt. I thought for sure he was going to notice and say something. But he didn’t. Neither did any of my colleagues. Neither did João.
Without cheating on that exam, I would have barely passed. But I ended up getting a 19 out of 20. And when I saw my grade on the list with all the other students’, students who had worked really hard to get a 14 or 15, I expected to feel like shit. Like I got something I didn’t deserve. But I was pretty proud of myself. This was my first time, and it had been so easy… I hadn’t even planned for it. If I’d put some thought into it, I would have gotten a 20!
I decided then and there that I wasn’t above cheating. And if I could easily cheat on an exam, the professor was kind of asking for it.
I continued using my cheating super-powers here and there to help me finish my physics degree, all while upholding my “good girl,” “best student in class” status. In fact, it’s been 10 years since I finished my degree, and it’s the first time I’m admitting what I did to anyone. And the thought that people will know that I’m not perfect, and worse, that my family will know that I’m not perfect, scares the shit out of me.
I sure as hell wouldn’t want my doctor to cheat their way through med school! But sometimes… You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do… As humans, we’re wired to find short-cuts, to find ways to be lazy while getting the same benefits. And I think that’s a good thing. Finding how to trick the system is, after all, also an intellectual endeavor.