It was October of 1980 and I was in year 11 at Scarborough Senior High School. I was an A grade English student and had always done well at both assignments and exams. We were about 3 weeks away from the end of year exams when a friend approached me in the courtyard and said excitedly, ’Hamo, I was just in the English office and I found the exam papers sitting on Teacher X’s desk. No one was around, so I took one. Do you want to see it?!’
I couldn’t believe someone would be so bold – so stupid… If he got caught he was history.
But that question, ‘Do I want to see it?…’
What a question to ask a competitive and often unscrupulous 16 year old. I wish I could say that I hesitated, pondered his offer and declined, but I didn’t hesitate at all. Instead I just said ‘Show me!’
And he did… And it was the paper… the actual questions that we would all be facing in 3 weeks time. I had them in my hand and I now had the opportunity to absolutely blitz this exam! If I couldn’t get the top mark for the year group then there would be something wrong.
If it had happened today I would have taken a photo of the exam with my phone, but instead I had to borrow it, take it home and copy out the questions onto a piece of paper. Even photocopiers weren’t readily accessible in 1980. I wrote the questions down and returned the paper to my friend, Brian – yes his real name… The weeks that followed had me practicing my answers to this exam and literally memorising my responses to the questions. I wrote and rewrote my answers so many times that I could do it in my sleep. For one piece of descriptive writing I even ‘pre-wrote’ the answer on a sheet of paper of the same kind as would be used in the exam, slipped it up my jumper and took it in with me, dropping it out onto the table while no one was looking. That one answer got a 10/10 and a rave review from the teacher marking it.
I didn’t get caught. No one spilled the beans and we made a ‘clean getaway’.
I finished up with a 92% for the exam which I have to say was a tad disappointing all things considered. Worse though was that my nemesis Fiona Watson managed to get 95% without cheating. I think I wanted to beat her more than I wanted to get a good result, so I was utterly bummed. Still 92% was a decent outcome and with exams over the summer surf was beckoning.
We all farewelled school for another year, but in the back of my mind was a nagging voice saying ‘You cheated…’ It wasn’t loud, so I managed to ignore it, but it just kept on quietly tapping on my conscience. Much like a dripping tap, some days it was all I could hear.
You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated. You cheated.
You get the idea.
At this stage in my life I was a ‘fledgling Christian’, which is another way of saying I sucked at it. Sometimes I was driven by a desire to follow Jesus and his way, but equally often I was subject to my more base desires and unable to resist the lure of the temptations around me. This was one of my darker moments.
I did know that I needed to do something to make things right. But what?
As the holidays ended I decided I would go back and see the Head of English, tell him what I’d done and take whatever consequences there were. I wasn’t going to dob anyone else in. I’d just cop the heat for it and take whatever consequences came. Suddenly my 92% was looking very shaky but I knew I needed to do this.
So on day one of year 12 I went to the English office and asked to see Mr Nelson on his own.
‘Yes Andrew, what I can help you with?’
‘Well, I cheated on last year’s English exam.’ I thought it best to cut to the chase.
‘Right,’ he responded, waiting for me to continue. At this point I realise now that he had no idea at all what I meant when I said cheated. How do you cheat on an English exam anyway?!
‘You see, one day when there was no one in the English office a friend of mine went in and saw the exam papers sitting on the desk and he took one, and he showed it to me and we studied it before the exam.’
I was confessing this with fear and trepidation, just wanting to get it off my conscience and make things right. I hadn’t given a thought to what reaction this might evoke in him, other than anger at my cheating. He caught me off guard with his response.
‘Well Andrew, thanks for coming to see me and letting me know.’
‘What will happen now?’ I asked.
He shook his head, looking as if he didn’t care, but (as I later realised) actually because he was in a bind. If I were to lose marks people would know and would want to know why. And the answer would be simply that ‘someone’ was careless enough to leave a stack of English exams on a desk in an unlocked office and a bunch of year 11 boys now had inflated grades as a result. Explain that one to your boss… HIs silence was simply him digesting and processing where this could lead.
Eventually he said, ’Nothing Andrew. The marks will stand. Thanks for letting me know.’
‘Ok,’ I said and left, wondering what had just happened.
What had just happened? I had followed an inner prompt to set things right regardless of the consequences and I’d done it. At the time I didn’t understand why I wasn’t punished. Later, when I was working as an English teacher, in the exact same school, the moment came back to me and I smiled. The same principal was in office as would have been there 12 years previous and he would not have seen the funny side (if there was one) of the stolen English paper.
So while I walked away with my grade intact, what mattered more was that a teenage boy had taken one faltering step towards being a good, honest man. I had said ‘no – that’s not who I want to be’ and I had drawn a line in the sand. In years to come I would go through theological college with a bloke who was copying the papers of past students and handing them in as his own. I was bewildered, but I guess that’s where it leads if you don’t draw your own lines early.
I don’t want to hold myself up as some kind of overly virtous kinda bloke, because that’s not who I am, but I do know who I aspire to be and I also know that when I screw up I need to fix up, otherwise I will learn to overlook my flaws and accept them as normal.
Maybe you’ve got a load on your own mind, a weight of stuff that you need to repair. It takes a bit of courage to lean into that, but its also the first steps in becoming the person you want to be, rather than the person you will become if you allow cowardice and fear rule your life.