She Cheated on an Opinion Question

We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” ~John Taylor Gatto

“If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.” ~Drill Sergeant Shokes

“She always cheats off of me,” my student said, giggling. “She cheated her way through chemistry, and then had to drop AP physics the next year. She was cheating off of me today, and it was an opinion question! She literally put exactly what I put!”

I once witnessed a student steal lunch from the cafeteria. Mind you, our school has been awarded a grant that gives “free” lunch to everybody – students must scan their ID card for accounting purposes, but the kid didn’t have time for that, even after he was reminded to scan his card. This was his second time doing this. I can’t remember if it was the chicken nuggets, or the chicken fajitas filled with shredded chicken nuggets, that condemned him to few days locked up in In School Suspension.

How to make sense of these senseless acts? Cheating on an opinion. Stealing what is free. On one hand I respect the civil disobedience aspect of it. We once had a no-hats-inside policy. Nobody obeyed, the rule was unenforceable, and now all students can wear hats inside. Social justice. Same with the big-coats-inside policy and truancy. Totally unenforceable. Now kids can wear big coats inside whatever building they’re in while not in school.

But on the other hand (the bigger hand), civil disobedience ought to have some kind of end-game in mind. There ought to be anger and frustration and passion and contempt for a system that enslaves you, that grinds up your soul and eats it in front of you. There ought to be a clear set of principles that the fight firmly rests upon.

When your girlfriend breaks up with you, and you want to get back together with her, then hope that she hates you. If she hates you, then she feels something, and that means there is still a chance. If she is completely indifferent to you, then you know it is over. You could have a new girlfriend, or not; be happy, or sad; be in the state or out of the country. If she just doesn’t give a shit, regardless of your physical or emotional status, then there is no connection. It’s dead. Move on. Same goes for my creative writing students – if someone loves what you wrote, or hates what you wrote, you are equally as successful. If they don’t give a shit, you fail.

This is what’s happening. I’m convinced of it. The cheater and the burglar don’t give a shit. They aren’t conscientiously bucking the system. The system is in the periphery, or not there at all. She cheats on opinion questions because, at the point of impact, the subject disinterests her; there is the prison-economy of grades that have conditioned her to write something; there is the drug of doing something illicit to spike her endorphins to help her get through the day; there is the pallid understanding that the “work” must be completed at this station before being buzzed on towards the next station to complete the work and eventually earn her degree; there is the Pavlovian response to authority. She is too gassed with apathy to have anything more than a dull understanding that she is resisting. If anything, she is just trying to get by until the weekend. I imagine she will take that training to the next stage of her life then the next and the next. Have you? Look at the Gatto quote above: curiosity, resilience, adventure, insight, and autonomy – where is that? Same goes for the thief. His actions make no sense, except the only consequence is instead of sitting in one room with the drill sergeant he is sitting in another room with the warden. At least in the latter he can eat his ill-gotten free lunch in peace.

My actual drill sergeant use to say, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying” (he also said that if you’re outnumbered, shoot the first one in the face, the second one in the balls, and the third will think twice about coming over the hill. Ah, marksmanship.) It’s where I learned moral flexibility, except, I would say, that my brand of moral flexibility – of “cheating” – is more principled than not. After all, it has been said that even a dead fish can go with the flow.

There is one basic rule to my deviance: people come before systems. Always. No exceptions. For example, let’s say that last year I had an English Language Learner in my 12th grade English class. I’m not saying I did, because I don’t want to go to NY-Board-of-Regents-Jail. Let’s say he had passed his state exams, he had all of his class credits, it was the Spring, and he had been accepted into his desired program at community college: auto mechanics. He wanted to spend my class (all day, in fact) working on cars with his vo-tech teacher. Wish granted. He needed that more than he needed me. Hypothetically.

I don’t have any one solution. It is an imperfect world full of imperfect people. However, I do have a few thoughts:

  1. I have heard it said that motion is emotion. Encourage movement of all types, and spend as much time outside as possible. Half the battle is getting that monkey of indifference off your back.
  2. I discourage young people from taking a job at places like box stores or fast food. I encourage them to find jobs that suit their interests, even if they get paid little to nothing. I have nothing against kids making money, and I think it’s important, but I think learning and thriving is more important, and besides, the return on investment on an unpaid internship with a law firm or an accounting agency will far exceed that of a 20 hour week speaking into a drive thru box. Side note: it is shocking how few take this advice.
  3. Be interesting. Do things other kids aren’t doing. Raise money for a scholarship fund. Invest money. Build something. Study for a Clep test. Hike or bike a hundred miles. Be a creator, not a consumer. Take initiative; don’t wait to be told what to do.
  4. Break the psychological effect of grades. Feedback is good, and you should know, honestly, where you stand on something you care about, but don’t change who you are for the sake of a number on a paper. It’s easier said than done…I still get butterflies in my stomach over my own grades. But it’s an important effect to, at least, be hyper-aware of. Otherwise, you are controlled by the person who wields the red ink. Grades are a weapon against individuality. You attach your sense of self to a grade and you’re setting yourself up to be set up.
  5. Plan your life. “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”~Jim Rohn


One last thought. Have passion. There’s a good chance this is the only human experience you will get. Don’t waste it as just another brick in the wall.

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