Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was 8 years old who forgot to do her homework. Let’s call her – oh, I don’t know – Donna. Little Donna failed to do her homework. Being that it was second grade, her homework consisted of the intellectually taxing task of finding a picture of nature – any picture – for a class bulletin board at school. Alas, the little girl forgot to cut a picture from a magazine the night before. Luckily, her friend offered to tear her picture of a field of wildflowers in half (- purple and yellow wildflowers, if Donna remembers correctly.) Donna felt this probably wasn’t quite right. Something in her stomach did a little flip and then a flop when she thought about taking half the picture, but she ignored that little nagging feeling. She took the picture, walked up to her teacher’s desk, and turned the picture in as her own. The teacher smiled and moved on to the next student in line. Donna then walked back to her own smaller desk, feeling quite sick the whole time, and then, what did Donna do? Donna proceeded to succumb slowly but surely to the guilt, and tears followed soon after. Her teacher, probably both confused and bemused, took her kindly into the hall to have a little chat. Immediately, Donna unburdened herself and explained the whole sad truth. The teacher thanked her for her honesty, told her it was okay, and sent her to get a drink of water. Donna returned to class still knowing she did something wrong, still feeling a little queasy from the close call, but generally a bit lighter in spirit.
As you’ve surely guessed by now, that little girl was I. And that incident was the first of 3 times I’ve cheated at schoolwork in my 20+ years as a student.
The second time I cheated was in 8th grade. I allowed a cute boy named Craig to copy my vocabulary homework. (Shoutout to Craig, wherever you are.) I knew it was wrong, but I was in that middle school phase of wanting to be accepted by my peers and wanting to look “cool,” and I chose to ignore that familiar flip of my stomach as I handed over my vocabulary book. Craig, as it turns out, was not very good at hiding two vocabulary books from our teacher. Neither of us thought through the fact that he sat right in front of her desk. She caught him copying, and we both received zeros. This time, instead of breaking down in tears, I played it off as nonchalantly as possible. “Who cares? I can afford the zero,” I told my friends. But inwardly I was ashamed and secretly glad that I had received the zero. I did something wrong, knowingly, and deserved what I got. Receiving the zero didn’t absolve me, but it made the burden of cheating sit just a little lighter on my shoulders.
The third time I cheated was in college. I was home for a long weekend, and I had put off writing a paper in one of my history courses. I planned to do it that weekend, but then my family planned a little day trip, and I, of course, wanted to go. A plan was hatched. You see, my sister went to the same college as I five years earlier, and as luck would have it, she too majored in history. And wouldn’t you know it, but she took the same class from the same professor and received the same assignment. There, on her computer, sat her own paper from just a few years ago. I think you can guess what happened. I took the paper, swapped a few phrases here and there, and typed “Donna” instead of “Tina” at the top. (This was long before Turnitin.com and the like, by the way.) I turned the paper in as my own work, received lovely comments from my professor in return, and received an A- for my efforts. Did I go back and tell him later the work was not my own as I had done so long ago in second grade? No. Did he ferret out my deception and give me a zero as my 8th grade English teacher did? No. No, this time I got away with it.
Except I didn’t. Not really. Dr. Thurston was one of my favorite professors. I took every single class the man offered because I respected him and enjoyed his classes so much. He was a great teacher and always had time for his undergraduate students. There was no reason for me to cheat. I could have probably asked for an extension and gotten one. Or I could have taken a late grade on that one assignment. Or I most likely could have whipped out a paper, maybe not a stellar paper, but a paper to turn in on time. I did none of those things. Instead, I took the “easy” way out and cheated and lied. It’s fifteen years later and I still think about it despite the fact that this was one incident in a long school career that saw me refuse to cheat or refuse to help others cheat relatively often. So no, I didn’t really get away with it after all. I think about how I lied. I feel shame and guilt, especially now that I am a teacher myself. I suppose the one good thing to come out of it was that it was the last time I cheated on my schoolwork despite several more years of undergraduate and graduate work.
Within those three stories, you can see three different kinds of cheaters, I think: The cheater who gives himself up to the authorities. The cheater who gets caught and takes her punishment willingly. The cheater who never gets caught, never gives herself up, but who still feels guilt and shame and who changes her behavior as a result. Honestly, I would love to have any of those cheaters in my classroom, and I know I have had some of at least the first two. I’ve had the student who comes to me and admits he copied. I’ve had the student who gets caught by me or another teacher and willingly accepts a just punishment for her crimes. Hopefully, I have had some of the last kind of cheater as well, although who would know? I don’t want students to cheat, and I certainly don’t believe all students do cheat, but we humans are by nature sinful creatures. Cheating happens, even amongst the best students. So if they are going to cheat, my hope would be that they would fall within one of these categories.
Here’s my fear, however. My fear is that we are facing a generation full of a growing number of the fourth kind of cheater.* This cheater is one who cheats fairly regularly and who sees no ethical or moral problems with such cheating. This cheater openly and without shame admits to cheating, and believes it is just a part of life that everyone should (and must, in their minds) accept, even if not everyone takes part in the behavior. This cheater, in fact, feels justified in cheating and believes those who do not cheat only have themselves to blame since everyone has the option of cheating. This cheater is actually offended when someone questions his integrity or character as a result of his cheating or suggests that by cheating he is harming others. Read that last sentence again. Go ahead. I’ll wait….This cheater is actually offended. At least in the past, when a cheater was caught, 9 times out of 10 he or she had the good sense to at least look sorry for what they had done. These days these fourth kind of cheaters will take you to task for pointing out the error of their ways. We have really fallen through the looking-glass, haven’t we?
I probably am starting to sound too “gloom and doom,” too curmudgeonly for some of you. Rest assured, I know that most students do not cheat, and I know that most students that do cheat do not fall into this last category. I do think, however, that we have more and more students falling into this last category than we did one or two generations ago. That should concern us as parents, teachers, and citizens. And if it does concern us, what are we going to do about it?
*There’s a fifth kind of cheater. The cheater who does not even recognize what they are doing as cheating. While this may be deeply unsettling, in some ways, the fourth kind of cheating is still worse since they knowingly choose to do wrong.