The Cheater

This week our Form C students are taking mock tests to prepare for the Junior Certificate exam in October. The JC, as we call it, determines whether students are allowed to proceed from secondary to high school. With so much weight, this exam brings a lot of nerves and tension and students’ wires begin to frazzle a bit.

Today I proctored a religion exam and when the subject’s teacher and I passed out the exams we realized we were one short. The principal hadn’t arrived for the day, meaning the copier was locked up and there was no way for us to get another copy. The teacher said she didn’t know what to do and walked out as the other students began writing.

Trying to remedy the situation, I went to different students to see if I had given one an extra copy. I noticed a student holding tightly to his exam and the sheets of paper he was to write his answers on. When I grabbed it, he didn’t let go. I forced it out of his hands to find a sheet with all the answers copied down so I ripped away his exam and gave it to the student without one. He stood up and got so close to me that I thought he might hit me then he walked out and called for me to come so we could talk.

“Madam, I am beginning the exam.”

Because I am different, don’t speak the language and often not quite sure what is going on, students tend to think they can get away with a lot when I am around. I may be confused but I am not stupid – there was no way he wrote two pages of answers in five minutes (he can barely write five sentences in 20 minutes when I give him English work) and I told him so.

Usually, when problems arise with the students, I get another teacher. Students should speak in English because they must pass English to move on but I always find it unfair when they can’t clearly explain their side of the story because of a language gap. I told him to get the religion teacher, which he did but then he hid behind another building while I talked to her. She agreed that he was clearly cheating, but instead of ripping up his exam or giving him a zero – as my former teachers would have done – she told him to start over. I gave him back his exam and asked the other student to share knowing she was less likely to cheat (the principal showed up 20 minutes later and we were able to copy another exam so that all students finally had their own.)

The accused student got to work and easily wrote down the answers. It reminded me of an episode of “Growing Pains” when Mike copies all the answers to a test on his shoes. The process of writing allowed him to learn the material so he never ended up cheating, however he was still expelled because his teacher found the answers and assumed he did.

My student won’t be expelled. In fact, he wasn’t disciplined at all and that bothered me. This is a student whom I like, whom I see potential in. However, he got mixed up with the wrong crowd this year and his attitude and grades have suffered. I’ve sat down with him and his family numerous times, explaining that a change in social circles and focus could be the difference between him passing or not but he didn’t take my advice.

Now, here he is, three weeks from exams and cheating, likely because he sees his chances of passing as low. I wanted to rip up the exam. I wanted him to learn his lesson. I wanted him to suffer the consequence of a string of bad decisions.

But the teacher didn’t see it that way. She wanted him to still take the exam; maybe she hasn’t written him off the way I have. She gave him a second chance.

Later in the day I heard this story about a young Bosnian refugee whose life changed courses when a high school English teacher helped him move from a public school to a private one, launching a prestigious education and career. The narrator, author Michael Lewis, said something that hit home with the situation I witnessed earlier:

“That there’s just this huge accidental component to life’s outcomes, that everyone owes some of their success, not just chance, but to other people being nice for no reason at all.” – “How I Got Into College”, This American Life, Episode #504

This made me think: who I am to say someone deserves a second chance or not? And I can’t claim superiority in the issue of cheating as I do remember borrowing a friend’s old exams to “study” in college. And, you know, maybe there is something that I don’t know about this kid and this act of mercy could be the game changer.

I’ve been here long enough to harbor a cynical, realistic expectation of what will happen to this particular student in October, but I haven’t changed too much that I still hold on to a sliver of hope for him. No matter what happens to him, he taught me that I could always be a little kinder and it’s OK to give people a break now and then.

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