His Cheating Heart

One part studying, one part cheating: An eighth grader’s recipe for academic success.

Eddie was doomed. Though he had studied all night, he knew he’d never pass his big Spanish test, let alone earn the C he sorely needed to stay afloat in class. He could never get the rules straight for conjugating verbs, and he had a lousy memory for spelling.

Unable to sleep, the suburban Chicago eighth grader did what he normally does to relieve pre-exam stress: He penciled a cheat sheet.

Eddie, 14, cheats on about a third of his school tests, sometimes stealing one answer, other times as many as ten. He looks upon it as added value to his studying. He’s been doing it as long as he can remember, and he says most of his classmates have cheated as well. He seldom worries about getting caught.

“I always wonder if the teachers are as stupid as we think they are,” he said, between classes. “Cheating is so easy to get away with. It’s like they never heard of it before.”

Eddie, who spoke on the condition that he and his school would not be identified, entered Spanish class the next morning feeling anxious but prepared. He glanced toward the teacher and surreptitiously slipped the cheat sheet into the open slot beneath his desktop.

For some reason, he thought back to the first time he had cheated, in fourth grade. He’d been surprised that despite his parents’ constant lectures about morality, he didn’t feel any guilt. In fact, he remembered feeling pretty good about himself. His folks had drilled home the need to earn good grades in order to get into a top college, and he had done what was necessary to succeed.

His parents never suspected he cheated. He doubted they’d understand. “Adults are always telling us to think about our future,” Eddie said. “But most of us aren’t interested in that. We think about right now, about what’s going on to help us in this class.”

On this day, Eddie needed more assistance than he’d imagined. His cheat sheet proved incomplete, necessitating that he whisper to the boy next to him for help. The boy wasn’t surprised; everybody in class knew that Eddie was struggling. He let Eddie copy a few answers even though the two weren’t friends. Eddie knew the boy wouldn’t refuse; word would have spread and it would have made the boy unpopular.

Eddie’s sole concern was getting caught by his Spanish teacher, whom he liked and didn’t want to let down. The teacher had gone out of his way to help him, passing him last semester when he didn’t have to. So Eddie stopped stealing answers midway through the exam, when he figured he had enough correct answers to pass. He didn’t want to be greedy.

“I’m trying to cut down, anyway,” he said. “I heard cheating’s a lot harder in high school.”

This piece originally ran in the Chicago Tribune.

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Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.

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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.