Oh, come on. I’m nuts, right? Enabling bad behavior to cure cheating? How to ruin a friendship for sure, one would think. And yet it worked. Not intentionally, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Wait. When I said “cheating” I did not mean the kind of cheating where one partner betrays his or her significant other by playing house with the cutie next door or at work. We’ll leave that topic to Jerry Springer and his ilk. Cheaters of the sexual sort do have something in common with this tale’s protagonists, though: They tend to learn only by hard experience, as do we all.
So what sort of cheating are we discussing? Simple. Cheating on school tests. If prostitution is “the oldest profession,” then cheating on that pop quiz or finals test can be considered “the oldest cheating.” Long before puberty, the school kid learns that scoring well on tests is a good thing if possible, a way to achieve status or, at minimum, a way to avoid scorn, derision, and parental insistence that one does one’s homework before engaging in more pleasurable activities. Unless you’re a tadpole enrolled in one of our Latter Day Schools of Political Correctness and Social Justice where everyone is a winner just for participating, it pays to score big and hurts to fail. That’s the real world.
But if you’re pretty sure you’re going to fail no matter what…and you sense a lifeline close at hand that might save you from drowning…why not grab it? What have you got to lose?
By being enabled, Steve (not his real name) found out. Not in grade school, but in his twenties.
Steve and I met in a Psychological Statistics 101 class at Montana State University in the late sixties. Neither of us was a “normal” student. At age 25, this was my third time in college, pursuing my third major. I’d been a rodeo professional, riding mostly saddle broncs and bulls before getting into a slump three years earlier and turning my life upside down by deciding to quit the circuit. My two draft years in the U.S. Army had come and gone, as had a number of different survival jobs. I had a family to support and was deadly serious about getting my sheepskin in psychology as fast as I could. “Intense” would be the word.
Steve was around my age, maybe a year or two older. He was a big man who already had a college degree, but in what turned out to be a useless field when it came to employment. After graduating, he’d played four years of pro football in the NFL before his knees knocked him out of the game forever…four weeks before he would have had enough time in the league to get a pension.
The class was not large, fewer than a dozen students. Steve and I hit it off from the beginning. It was inevitable that when the first big quiz came around–upon which a significant percentage of our grade would depend–that we sat in school desks next to each other. These were movable seats, easily shifted so that we students ended up in a sort of semicircle around the smallish room. The professor knew his stuff. He also graded tough, and he was–as it turned out–the only professor I ever encountered who graded on a strict curve, which meant that no matter who scored what, somebody was going to get an A and somebody was going to get an F. I was slightly wired, just apprehensive enough to be on my toes, reasonably prepared and ready to go. Steve was…terrified. His confidence level was not high. I couldn’t read any of the other students, but my friend was an open book to me.
After the professor handed out the quiz sheets, he told us we were on the honor system…and left the room.
There were fifty questions on the test, all multiple choice. At least they were not essay questions. I bent to my task and, by the time I was halfway through, knew I was going to get some of them wrong. But not a huge number, I thought. It would all depend on how the others did. On the curve.
At about this point, Steve whispered to me, “Can I copy off you?”
There was no way I could say no. I knew the man had a living to make and, as he saw it, no way to make it. My mind had long been geared to kicking butt wherever butt presented itself, but his thinking was understandably different. If he failed to upgrade his educational resume, he was in hot, hot water. With his permanently bad knees and a good 300 pounds of big (not fat) man perched on them, there was no way he could handle a blue collar job. I’d quit a job as a hardrock, underground miner to go back to school. If school failed me, I’d find a job somewhere, somehow, that would support my little family at least a little above subsistence level. If Steve couldn’t make the move from contact athletics into a white collar profession, he was pretty much blued, screwed, and tattooed, as the saying goes.
“Sure,” I whispered back, quickly enough that he would never know I’d gone through those calculations at light speed before opening the corner of my mouth.
And so he did.
The next day, we got our test papers back, complete with scores and grades. I got an A. Steve got an F.
“I don’t understand,” he admitted miserably. It didn’t help much when we compared papers and I pointed out the obvious. He had answered fourteen questions incorrectly, leaving him with 72% correct. I had answered seven questions incorrectly, leaving me with 86% correct. With most professors, that would have given me a grade of B and Steve one of D, but the curve, eh? The key was that he had copied exactly seven of my answers–which happened to be the exact seven questions I missed.
Steve was crushed. He also assured me that he’d never cheat again and I believed him. Purely by accident, I had cured my friend of cheating by enabling him, allowing him to copy my answers.
Would he have gotten some of those seven right if he’d stuck to doing his own thinking? No one knows. Did he pass the course in the end? I don’t know that, either. He didn’t share and I didn’t dare ask.