How cheating as a student taught me a lesson that I carry with me today

I heard a familiar voice whispering my name. I was in the middle of an exam. And my friend Joe, who was seated behind me, kept trying to get my attention.

“Shhhh… can you pass me your answers?”, said Joe, quietly.

I was a naive, 13 year old student then, not aware of the lesson I was about to be taught. Joe sits beside me in class, and was always chatty and playful. I knew he was not the academic type.

Being a good friend

“What?”, I replied to Joe, even though I knew exactly what he was asking for.

“Help me out man. Look, the teacher isn’t looking now, pass me your answers, quick!” Joe spoke with haste.

Should I give him my answer sheet? That’s cheating, so surely this can’t be the right thing to do. But I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important.

As our class teacher looked away, without thinking further, I quickly handed my answer sheet to Joe.

I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important

But what I did not realise, was that my Math teacher, Mrs Nora, was standing right outside our class, silently looking in from the back.

I did not see her when I passed Joe my papers.

I continued working on my exams. Ten minutes later, Joe tried to slip my answer sheet back to me.

As I turned to take my paper back, I caught a glimpse of Mrs Nora, still standing outside the class… and caught her looking right back at me!

My heart dropped. My first thought was that she would walk in screaming and tried to interrupt the exam.

But no. Instead, she gave me a disappointed look, smiled and walked away.

The conversation with Mrs Nora

I didn’t hear from Mrs Nora for the next few days. Maybe I got away with it?

That did not last long, as Mrs Nora walked into my class one day and asked me to follow her to her office. Without Joe.

I thought, “Oh no, what will she do? Will she call my parents? What do I tell them? And…. wait, why didn’t she ask Joe to come along, isn’t he also part of this?”

We stepped into her office, and she looked up at me.

“Derek, I saw you passing your answers to Joe. Why did you do that?” Mrs Nora said. “You’re a good kid. Did you know that you scored an A for this paper?”

I was nervous, and looked at her quietly without a response. I have always been a shy boy, following the rules, and never liked conflict.

“I am going to give you a C to teach you a lesson”, she continued.

Tears started flowing down my face. I felt a deep sense of fear and regret. And before long I started sobbing.

In an introverted fashion, no words would come out of my mouth, but my mind started racing, “WHY? Why are you punishing me? I didn’t cheat, I was only helping out a friend! Why isn’t he also getting punished??”

Almost as though she could hear the voice in my mind, Mrs Nora said “Did you know that Joe failed anyway? Even though he copied some of your answers. In the end, after helping him cheat, you didn’t manage to help him at all, and instead did something that makes me think that you do not have any integrity.”

Mrs Nora said, “Did you know that Joe failed anyway?”

“Even if you succeeded to help him pass his exams by cheating, how many times can you do this for him? Eventually he will still fail, because he didn’t actually get better. If you really cared for him as a friend, you should have encouraged him to learn to do the hard work in order to pass his exams. I want you to remember this.”

Still crying, I remained silent and accepted my punishment.

The lessons I carry with me

Joe knew what had happened. But he never stepped in to take responsibility, because why should he? He failed anyway. And needless to say, we stopped being friends after that. In fact, he eventually left the school without finishing, and I never knew if it was by choice.

It’s been 25 years since this happened, but it’s left such an impact on my life. Even though Mrs Nora said it in a way a 13 year old could understand, these are lessons even many working adults could use.

  1. If you really want to help a friend, sometimes you need to say to their face what is hard but true. Even if they don’t want to hear it, they need to learn to succeed themselves. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  1. If you want to progress in your career, you have to work hard and be genuinely good at your job. You can get away with shortcuts by playing politics to get promoted, or taking credit for other peoples’ work, but over a long period of time, you’ll eventually be found out and the market (invisible forces) will adjust you to your true value. The reverse is also true – if you feel you are not progressing fast enough compared to your peers, as long as you have a great attitude to work, time will adjust you to your true value, so keep going.
  1. If you’re a boss that thinks being nice to your team is being a good leader, you’re much likelier to hurt their long term career. Teach them the value of hard work, or they will go through their career thinking they are better than they actually are, and struggle in the long term.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all:

“Good intentions” can never justify cheating.