Cheating on your moral compass

Julia Aizuss

Last month, amid the onslaught of junior year work, I read “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov. One line stuck with me so much that I’ve quoted it in conversation to multiple people.

Whenever my email pings with the latest Honor Board case, the line often comes to mind: “‘I’m quite satisfied with my own melodrama,’ remarked the King.” In context, the line is a sarcastic play on words, but it reminds me how the experiences of others remind us of our own, how our ordeals shape us when we react to the ordeals of others.

In the fifth grade, I cheated. When I flipped to a page on my social studies test revealing questions on a topic I studied negligently, I panicked. I had a reputation for intelligence—as much intelligence as a 10-year-old can have—which I couldn’t sacrifice. How could I emerge unscathed?

My savior was close at hand. During tests, we placed any books under our chairs. There sat my textbook. All I had to do was push it outward, use my feet to flip the pages to the relevant section and proceed from there. Although my plan worked, it wasn’t a subtle maneuver, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when one boy saw.

When he confronted me, I denied his accusation. It didn’t end there. My friends informed me of a rumor spreading that I had cheated on a test; I felt cold, but blithely assured them it was untrue. One morning a teacher took me into her classroom: a student had told her what happened. Was this true? Had I, in fact, cheated?

With just the two of us, the classroom felt large and empty.

No, I said, of course not. I had not cheated.

She let me go. I’m not sure how I evaded further confrontation with anyone. Maybe it was because of the reputation I cherished.

Whatever the reason for the lack of inquisition, didn’t I succeed? Wasn’t it worth it? I wasn’t caught—officially—and I maintained my reputation—among the teachers. But my cheating wasn’t worth it: I received a B. As it turned out, I wasn’t a skilled cheater, and the section I cheated on lowered my grade.

Guilt dogged me the rest of the year. Often, whether walking around at school or lying next to my Halloween candy after my friends went home, a phrase would repeat itself, drilling into me unbidden: I cheated I cheated I cheated. Even if I could’t acknowledge the fact to anyone else, I couldn’t stop repeating it to myself.

But acknowledging it to yourself is not enough. It’s never enough. It is, nonetheless, ineffably hard to admit to wrongdoing. Doing so, no matter how long it takes, requires courage and humility, so I always end up looking at Honor Board emails with a weird mixture of sympathy, respect and envy. While I, like most students, have conflicted feelings about the Honor Board, I’m sure its basic intent is necessary: to give a sense of closure that is foreign to the rest of us.

I say “the rest of us” because the cheaters who come before the Honor Board are a minority. The rest of us cheat, make mistakes, fail to obey morals. But we also strive to acknowledge these failings, resolve not to transcend them but to use them to grow as people and abide by the Honor Code.

A passage from the student handbook about the Honor Code and Honor Board says, “In our quest for academic excellence, we cannot forget that Harvard‐Westlake is not just a place to grow intellectually, but also a place to grow emotionally and personally.”

As someone who’s never gone before the Honor Board, I can’t say for sure whether it succeeds in this. Here’s what I do know: as a fifth grader, already absurdly bent on academic excellence, I cheated, and that lent me a more intimate understanding of morality, but I’ve failed to gain closure.

Sometimes, despite lingering guilt, I fear I learned nothing. I’m still relieved I evaded punishment, still glad that blemish isn’t on my record. Would I feel the same if something similar happened here? I can only wonder if the Honor Board would have given me the closure my elementary school failed to. Hopefully, that’s what the Honor Board strives for: emotional growth and the closure that comes with it. If not, our textbooks might as well be open, like they were when we shifted in our seats and looked furtively at the pages at our feet.