Cheating Off My Paper

Ben Renner

 In middle school, I was smarter than I am now. 

This was before I ditched class to get high, or drunkenly climbed up the side of a sandy bluff in Discovery Park with a driftwood pole. It was before I passed out in the dorm hallway on the eve of an important math test. It was even before I gagged a little at 2:11 p.m., because that particular time of day happened to be the name of a popular malt liquor I drank and vomited back up numerous times. 

I was smarter back then, if smarter means having done fewer dumb things. But, in spite of receiving my middle school education from a Catholic K-through-eight soaked in guilt and warnings about premarital sex and masturbation, I wasn’t any more virtuous. I merely wanted friends. 

In terms of knowing facts about objective truths, I suppose I’m smarter now. 

I’ve learned an encyclopedia of lessons both inside and outside the classroom since then, which I can now call upon as needed. For example: public speaking. 

But this isn’t all about how smart or even how moral I was at age 12, it’s about homework. Middle school was probably the peak of my completing homework assignments abilities. 

And with every ability comes the choice of how exactly to use it.

I used my completing homework assignments ability to gain attention.

Three-quarters of the middle school student body was African-American, and I was always seeking approval and acceptance from my peers, most of whom looked and spoke differently than I did. So, I became the facilitator of a massive Catholic School cheating ring that reached its apex in Ms. Jungers’ seventh-grade Homeroom. And I, like millions of white boys before me, found a way to use my skin tone to my advantage, even though my paleness made me a minority.

I wouldn’t say I’m a grammar expert, even with my Bachelors’ degree in Creative Writing, but I’m pretty fucking good at grammar. 

The rules came easily to me. I followed a simple procedure when fixing incorrect sentence structures on worksheets: does it sound right? No? Then make it sound right. 

“An important part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for equality were all the people who fought alongside him.” Plural and singular disagreement. Wrong. “I ate toast, bacon and eggs.” Are you addressing the bacon and eggs? Missing Oxford comma. Wrong. All I had to do, beyond listening silently for words and clauses that screamed ‘wrong’, was remember the correct terms for all the parts of the sentence. Subject, predicate, independent clause. 

Ms. Jungers ran a tight ship, but her Grammar class was easy, and not just for me. Most of the kids paying attention at least half the time realized they could do this work in front of the TV, one hand on their SEGA Dreamcast controller. I earned a 116% grade one trimester, and my grade was only the fifth-highest. 

The truly bored and cunning students must have soon found that copying others’ answers was a way to eliminate at least some school work from their daily lives, which seemingly included playing violent video games with each other, and dropping by each other’s houses, and attending partially-supervised parties with girls. 

I wanted that life, so I hastily supplied a few answers to a few questions one morning before Grammar class, and for the first time at St. Therese Middle School, I felt like I had a purpose. 

After a taste of that power, it wasn’t long before my perfect or nearly-perfect homework assignments routinely circulated around the classroom before I turned them in. Once, a classmate of mine, we’ll call him Phillip—that’s a pseudonym to protect his identity—rushed to fill in his worksheet using my answers in the coat closet in the rear of Ms. Monroe’s Literature and eighth grade Homeroom just before she returned from the bathroom. 

Maybe Ms. Monroe saw me and Philip in the coat closet, backs turned conspicuously, maybe she didn’t. Ms. Monroe knew I was smart, and probably assumed I didn’t cheat. Maybe I disappointed her with my blithe disregard for basic academic morality. Maybe she understood why I did it. 

After our close call, Philip rewarded me with a smile. “Good lookin’ out,” he said.

I was never what you would call popular in grade school. I wasn’t ambitious or athletic enough. 

In the middle of a Catholic Youth Organization basketball game, when I found myself catching and gripping the smooth leather of an indoor ball, clad in the red and white of the St. Therese Middle School All-Stars, clock running, wide open for a three, I traveled—the refs either missed the call or felt sorry for me. Then I panicked, and passed the ball. Maybe I could have perfected my jumper with a training montage, but I never tried. My inconsistent shooting motion and follow-through persist, even now. 

Unable to impress others with athletic feats and unwilling to approach the more popular kids in class or on the playground, I existed in obscurity. Other kids knew me as smart, but also quiet and incredibly awkward, hard to talk to. 

In fifth grade, I got my first pair of glasses. I was ashamed of them. The first time I took them out of their case at school I was full of trepidation, but I couldn’t see the board, so I tried to slip them on invisibly while the lights were dimmed for a math problem on the projector. Soon after that first time fumbling with my glasses case, though, I came to realize their power: they gave me an identity. It wasn’t a perfect identity, and it wasn’t exactly the path to instant popularity and friendships, but it was something I could take with me to middle school. I had a symbol, adding to my mystique as one of the smartest dudes in class.

In sixth grade, everyone knew I was smart, partially because they saw a quiet white kid with glasses when they looked at me, but the cheating off my paper didn’t ramp up until the next year, when the other smart kids started refusing, perhaps because of the constant shame and guilt emanating from the chapel across the hall, to hand over their papers and answers. 

That left an opening at the top of this homework plagiarism empire, an opening that I was all too happy to fill. In the end, my need for acceptance outweighed morality, shame, and guilt.

Did it work? Like everything else, yes and no. Yes, a few classmates who may not have known my name before paid attention to me. More importantly, if only for a few moments, I materialized for a few of the girls who had barely looked at me before. 

But my supply of correct answers did nothing but treat a few symptoms of the real disease: my difficulty connecting with people, which, along with my terrible jump shot, I carry with me to this day.

We’re taught bad actions make others suffer. When we cause the suffering of someone else, that’s wrong. Part of my so-called ‘coming of age’ experience was realizing how easy it was to subvert that notion.

Maybe I cheated a few kids out of learning all the parts of a sentence, but I’d like to think homework completion increased in Ms. Jungers’ Grammar class. Maybe that encouraged her. 

Cheating earned the attention of some of my peers. I was thanked and praised. I made playground friends. A girl kissed me! But by the end of the school year, I hadn’t made the impression I thought I would. Being the go-to guy for Grammar didn’t make me the go-to guy for friends—take-home friends, anyway—much less girlfriends. Supplying correct, unearned answers wasn’t worth it, but it was a mistake I would make again. Lord knows I’ve cheated on quizzes and tests, and worse, since then.

I felt guilty about some of my actions in seventh grade. I still cringe myself to sleep when I think about what I said to Ann about Sarah that one time—again, pseudonyms—but being a grammar homework kingpin never keeps me up at night. 

Was my brazen disrespect for academia and lack of integrity particularly abhorrent because it was conducted so close to God’s house? A priest could have been blessing wine and bread a mere 150 paces from where I was committing academic fraud. I didn’t believe that what I was doing was hurting anyone, merely helping classmates whose acceptance I was seeking one worksheet at a time. Those grammar worksheets didn’t seem intended to help anyone learn, so much as fill out forms. I could have been wrong.

I’m not proud of my actions in seventh grade, but I had my reasons. I developed a defense mechanism for my crippling guilt and low confidence. Pushing moral boundaries then set me on my course, for better and for worse.