“Just how do you always get the better score?” I asked my lab partner after the latest test results were returned. Once again, he’d gotten an A on his test while I only managed to pull in a B.
“Just study harder I guess,” he answered with a sheepish smile and turned away. Since we always worked from the same notes for science class and I knew he didn’t have a better memory than me for formulas, I started paying closer attention to what he was doing. When it came time for our next test, I tried to get him to help me with the formulas, but he just kept saying he needed to run off for basketball practice. During the test, he kept taking peeks into his cupped hand on the harder questions and I started to realize my lab partner was cheating on the test!

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My temperature rose a little bit with each time he peeked into his hand. It wasn’t fair that he should be acing science class when I was struggling to hold onto my grade. As I worked through my problems, my pencil making sharp rapping sounds on the desk as I slammed it against the desk with each dotted i and crossed t, I decided I was mad enough to go ahead and turn him into the teacher when I handed in my own paper.

As I stood up to turn in the test, though, I saw my lab partner staring straight at me. He’d obviously been sitting there for a while, waiting for me to finish. Something in his eyes was begging me not to say anything. He’d made me so angry never telling me he was cheating to get good grades, I almost turned him in anyway, but I guess it was the code of high school lab partners that I decided to at least give him a chance to explain himself.

Once out of the classroom, he handed me the small sheet of paper he’d been holding in his hand. Because I’d just taken the same test with him, I was able to understand the almost hieroglyphic symbols he had scratched on it in tiny type.

“Ask me anything from that paper,” he challenged me.
“What are you talking about?”
“Go ahead, just ask me about anything you see there. Any of the questions you remember from the test.”
“All right, what’s the formula for figuring out momentum?”
“Momentum … you multiply the mass of the object times its velocity, right?”
“Lucky guess,” I insisted. Then I proceeded to quiz him on all the other formulas we’d just been tested on and he nailed every one of them.
‘“Well, then, I don’t understand, why do you cheat?” I finally asked, confused.
“I don’t know what it is,” he admitted. “When I’m studying on my own or doing quizzes like this with friends, I can get all the answers right all the time. But when I’m looking at the test in the classroom, everything is just a blank. I can’t think of anything.”

We weren’t experienced enough then to know that there is something called test anxiety that some people have. When they are faced with a real test in front of them, they get extra anxious about how they’ll do and their body goes into overdrive. We talked about his problem for a while and I started to understand that it was actually a real problem, not just some game he was trying to play with me about it.

While I still felt it was wrong of me to not turn him in for cheating when no one else was able to do it, I also knew that he would never pass any of his tests without some help if he had a real condition like that and his future depended on his basketball scholarship. In the end, I didn’t turn him in, but I did wonder how he was going to make it through college without finding a better solution to his problem.

In the incident above, I was faced with opposing ‘right’ decisions to make. It would have been right for me to turn my lab partner in for cheating because he was technically cheating on all of his tests. He was giving himself an unfair advantage over the rest of us and we were all measured to some degree against his abilities. Especially when the tests were graded on a curve, this wasn’t fair since the test would make us look bad. When everyone else in class was getting a C, he’d be getting his usual As. That wasn’t fair to the rest of us and it was against school policy to let him keep getting away with it, especially when I caught him red-handed. If I had turned him in, it might have been bad for him at the moment, too, but it might have also helped him find the help he needed for test anxiety earlier and reduced the risks he was taking. I don’t know how he did once he entered into college, but it’s possible knowing he had test anxiety earlier could have helped him succeed better once he got to college or even helped him deal with college entrance exams.

It was also right, according to teenage code, to let him get away with cheating if he could. As teenagers, it really wasn’t our concern what other people did to get around the system. We were all involved in some kind of behavior that rebelled against or worked around the system in some way. It was kind of an unspoken agreement among all members of my age group that we would look beyond a few things like a broken rule, a broken curfew, or a broken law once in a while, as long as it wasn’t too serious and didn’t really harm anyone too much. These two ideas clearly contradict each other as the first is in keeping with school rules and the second is in keeping with the social rules of my age group. Truthfully, the concept of overlooking other people’s cheating like that kind of took me by surprise. It wasn’t a rule we were taught as part of teenage initiation rites or anything. It was just something I seemed to understand about social life as a high school student that didn’t need to be explained. Even the kids who always seemed to do the right thing seemed to be conflicted on these kinds of decisions.

As my lab partner proved in the hall outside of class that day, it also seemed the wrong thing to do to turn him in for cheating when he clearly knew the material. If he didn’t have test anxiety, he probably would have gotten As on his tests all the time anyway. He was a star basketball player and had good prospects for getting a scholarship. I knew his family didn’t have a lot of money, so a scholarship was probably the only way he would be able to go to college and he was a smart guy who should have gone to college. If I’d turned him in for cheating, he might not have been able to do any of that. Recognizing another student is really smart was also somewhat against teenage code. We were all supposed to be equally stupid, but my lab partner stood in the hall and proved to me that he was actually pretty brilliant. It was at that moment that I realized there are many more levels to life than I’d thought and I started to prepare myself for the confusion I was starting to expect from adulthood.