How to Cheat Like a Saint

In 1974 it was my turn to attend the all-boys Jesuit Catholic high school from which my two older brothers had graduated. Wanted or not, they had already established a reputation for me. Those first few weeks teachers I’d never met would ask, “Are you a Navarrete?” and then tell me I better live up to the name when they found out I was. At first I was disappointed to be lumped into a “Navarrete bucket” but I eventually learned it was handy to be pre-gifted with a reputation as an excellent student, both academically and in citizenship— particularly when I wasn’t living up to the latter part of the reputation.

I was hardly a secret ax murderer, and my crimes were all petty. Nevertheless, I was always surprised at how much I could get away with because teachers would either never think to suspect me or because they felt a need to help me uphold my position as a model student. In the end, I graduated from high school without ever having received detention or any of its Jesuit equivalents.

The Jesuits are the intellectual, rabble rousers in Catholicism and they tend to bring a “flexibility” to many things. One example is that you could periodically convince a teacher that rather than sending you to detention, you could “Slide for Life.” It was a simple game with double-or-nothing repercussions. If you won, you got out of detention. Lose and it was a double sentence. A teacher would take an eraser (we had black boards in those days) and mark off two eraser lengths at one end of the eraser tray, creating a “safe zone.” The accused would stand at the other end of the blackboard and shoot the eraser along the tray. If the eraser stopped completely within the safe zone, he won freedom from detention. Otherwise, he heard classmates’ jeers as he headed off to meet with the Dean of Men for extended penalty time.

chalkboard

A frequent event that led to classmates begging to “Slide for Life” happened if you forgot to bring your textbook to class. One day I left my copy of Catcher in the Rye in my locker. Our English teacher was pacing up and down the rows of desks as he lectured and I was sure my detentionless streak was over. When he reached my desk, he saw that I didn’t have my book. He paused. Tapping my desk with one finger, he lowered his voice to a stage whisper, and said, “Don’t forget to bring it tomorrow,” then continued walking and lecturing. Hardly Shawshank Redemption stuff, but this was a teacher who had no tolerance for forgotten books. I didn’t have to look around to know the whole class was sending “teacher’s pet” vibes at me.

Cutting My Teeth on Cutting

I never “officially” cut a class, but about every six weeks I’d take extended “orthodontics breaks.” I had a lot of orthodontics work done and I always booked my appointments for late mornings or early afternoons. What should have been a two-hour school absence often stretched to three or four hours because my route back to school often took me via comic book stores, Golden Gate Park, the library, or home for a snack. Every time I’d visit the Dean of Men for my permission slip he’d recommend that I try to schedule my appointments for non-school hours. Never seemed to happen. Just as I was graduating, they implemented a new school policy: absolutely no appointments during school hours.

Cheating Gone Wild

My junior year one teacher would give a weekly test to ensure that we were keeping up with reading assignments. He would read ten statements, and after each he would ask, “True or False?” and we would write the appropriate answer. These tests only accounted for about 10% of the grade so they weren’t that important. But they might make the difference in nudging a B+ toward an A-, or a B- into a C+.

Early in the semester one of my classmates mentioned that he’d forgotten to do this week’s reading and asked if I would help him by signaling the correct responses. I believe this was the first conversation the two of us ever had. I couldn’t care less how this kid did in class, so I agreed. 

writing

I devised a scheme where I would play with my pen after each statement. If I held my thumb up (akin to the Facebook “like” icon), then the statement was true. If my little finger was the only digit not on the pen, then it was false. My classmate sat two rows away, so it was easy for him to glance in my direction.

I wasn’t surprised the following week when he asked for the same favor. I was annoyed, so I purposely gave him a wrong answer. He would never know that I got all ten correct while he missed one. I doubt he would have gotten them all right, anyway. He was the kind of student who routinely relied on the “D.I. Method”—short for “Divine Inspiration.” As in, “Oh, please, God, oh, please, God, help me remember what the quadratic equation is…”

Oddly, we never again discussed this arrangement. We just kept doing it for the rest of the semester, though I always fed him at least one wrong answer.

A few weeks into this arrangement I glanced his way and realized that he was mimicking my hand signals and relaying them to someone else in class. I increased the misses to 3 — just good enough to pass. It may have been the following week that I noticed a second person relaying my signals. Given where this classmate sat, he couldn’t get the signals directly from me, so he was probably getting them from that first classmate. What kind of monster had I created? Just how many classmates were cheating from me? Was the teacher suspicious that the same group of students were all getting the same questions wrong each week?

I could have refused to help, but I would have missed the enjoyment of toying with my clueless classmates. Was it more wrong that I was helping them to cheat or was it more wrong that I enjoyed manipulating their grades? I can’t remember if I ever gave them four wrong answers—a fail for the week. I think I might have, but if so, no one ever complained.

Reputation Before All Else

My senior year one of my best friends borrowed my project assignment and copied it verbatim. The morning the assignment was due he had asked if he could borrow my work. I assumed he would use mine to compare to his work and tweak accordingly.

Because his last name begins with an “O”, he sat directly behind me in this class. As we were passing our assignments up to the front, I asked him in a whisper, “What did you change?”

His response stunned me. “I didn’t change anything. It was really good.”

“You copied it EXACTLY? You know the teacher’s going to read and grade mine, and then he’s going to read and grade your paper right after mine, right?”

A week later we got our papers back. No request from the teacher that my friend and I step up to his desk. Just a general, “Good work on the assignment, everyone,” as he passed back our papers.

As I expected, my grade was an “A.” My friend paper got a “B.” We stared at each other in disbelief. At first it disappointed me that the teacher clearly hadn’t read either paper. He had just assumed my work was “A-worthy” while his was only good enough for a “B.” And then I became mad that, based solely on his name, my friend had been screwed out of an “A”—as if he somehow deserved that “A”.  I actually considered confronting the teacher over the unfairness of my friend getting a lower grade based solely on his name. And then I came to my senses. I doubt either my friend or I would have been offered an opportunity to “Slide for Life.”


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