After a cheating scandal hit his school, Chris Wiewiora tries to figure out where he fits in.
“And often, when you’re deep inside a system where cheating has been normalized, you can’t even see that there are choices between being honest and playing by corrupt rules.”
—from The Cheating Culture by David Callahan
In the Honors computer lab, I printed that week’s story for my writing group, when this girl came up to me. I stepped aside, thinking she had something that was coming out of the shared printer.
“I saw you at that reading in the park,” the girl said.
“Oh really?” I asked.
My first creative writing instructor who had become the director for Maitland’s Poets & Writers had gotten me the gig. I was excited. I had gotten paid (paid!). And now, here was a girl (girl!) who had gone to a reading and recognized me (me!).
I hadn’t realized that someone other than my mom and dad and a few friends had come to the reading. At Lake Lilly, couples hand-in-hand, parents pushing strollers, and singles with dogs on leashes had scuttled in front of the microphone set in front of the pathway to the farmer’s market.
“Yea, you were good,” the girl said.
“Thanks,” I said. I wanted to show myself off a bit, so I added, “Both those pieces are being published.”
“That must be cool,” she said.
“It is,” I said, “I mean, I kinda already know what it takes to get published since I’m the assistant editor of the Florida Review—”
“—that’s what that woman said. I’d like to know about that.”
I thought, Who is this girl that is interested in reading and small literary magazines? I had to get to know her. I was in a rush off to my writing group, but I suggested to her that we should meet up sometime. We exchanged e-mails.
And so, I sat down across from Natalie at a Panera Café. At first, I thought Natalie was Spanish because she was so tan and curvy and her last name was Costa. But she was actually Greek. She wore a low-cut top that showed off her cleavage. It made me think of a lowercase m like I would draw as birds in the sky as a kid.
“Up here,” Natalie said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “They’re great.”
I handed Natalie a stack of Florida Reviews. One included my first publication—a book review of a novel about a pornstar who is about to go into retirement by shortening his enormous penis. Another issue of the Florida Review had an editor’s note written about me:
…I can’t expect to find another undergraduate any time soon who shares Chris’s work ethic (apprenticing himself to editors, editing the program’s in-house journal, voraciously reading books and literary journals).
“Oh, I’m so wet,” Natalie said, miming her hand to her crotch. I didn’t know if she was joking about the book review or the editor’s note, regardless I got an immediate hard-on.
Natalie was dirty and flirty. I can’t remember when Natalie first mentioned her boyfriend. But she didn’t tell me immediately. It was like it didn’t matter. He wasn’t important. I thought she might be willing to cheat on him.
As we kept talking, I found out Natalie was the treasurer of Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honors Society, and she was a double major in English Literature and Spanish Language. I told her I hoped that it would be my last semester at UCF, but I didn’t know if I could pass Spanish. Natalie offered to help me.
My Spanish teacher was Professor Rivera: a short, tan, sliver-haired Puerto Rican. When we practiced pronouncing the Spanish alphabet, Professor Rivera rolled his r’s neverendingly. He said at home his pet birds trilled along with him. Professor Rivera always tucked his collared shirt into his waist, even if he was wearing jeans, showing off his silver buckle. Rivera had served in the military, in Japan, during WWII. To get him to use up class time, students would ask him about the war and how he first encountered colloquial English.
“They would say, ‘Watch are ya?’ And I had no idea what they were asking me,” Professor Rivera would say about his fellow GIs who hadn’t met a Latino before.
Every Friday, Professor Rivera would remind us to do our online Spanish homework. The first time he told us we would be recording our voice for him he said, “It is strange. Sometimes, I hear a female’s voice when the gender of the student is male…. It is funny to me. But yes, get help on the homework. Feel free to work together. It is okay.”
Professor Rivera wasn’t ignorant of the situation. Many of his students, like me, were there only because of the university’s foreign language requirement. I believe he understood that most of us just needed the credit.
My brother had taken Spanish. He told me that if I answered the online homework wrong three times, then the program would give me the answer. Each week there would also be a quiz, with two attempts, and no answers given. I always got full points for the homework. What I needed help with were the quizzes.
Natalie met me in the Honors computer lab. I submitted my first attempt and the program kicked back my wrong answers. Natalie corrected what I got wrong.
Before the next week’s quiz I texted Natalie some lines of poetry. The first time I did this she texted, Cute. Yours? And I texted back, No. Guess. Natalie got it too fast. I realized that she had just searched online. I continued sending her poetry for a few weeks, but eventually got tired of finding something for her and her telling me the author I already knew.
Still, we kept meeting to work on my Spanish quizzes. It became easier and quicker for Natalie just to do it: fill in all the blanks and match everything and then type out any long-response answers. I would sit there and flirt with her.
Many times, we used the first available computer up by the sign-in desk, where each Honors student handed over their student ID to be swiped. We were blatant, but nobody seemed to care.
It reminded me of high school vocabulary homework. Every year we’d be given these orange journal-size workbooks. There were 20 words to memorize each week. The homework consisted of matching words to definitions (fallacious (adj.) 1.) Containing or based on a fallacy. 2.) Tending to mislead, deceptive), filling in the blank. (Question: The ____ prom queen strutted down the hall with her tiara. Answer: pretentious), and matching words to their synonyms and antonyms (corpulent = fat/thin).
No one wanted to do the vocabulary homework. I attended a technology magnet at the high school. Many of the other guys were geeks who designed 3-D videos of a ping-pong match and notorious slackers who faked being sick to stay home and “level up” in the videogame World of Warcraft. And with that came a search to circumnavigate ((v.) To go or proceed completely around.) the vocabulary workbooks.
I would go to the websites ihatevocab.com, vocabsucks.com, and icheatonvocab.com that gave away all the answers. One after another these websites shut down after they were served cease-and-desist orders from the publishers of the workbooks. By my junior year there were no more websites. So, a fellow student bought a teacher’s edition for that year’s workbook. He uploaded the answers to his encrypted personal website. All of us in the magnet were given a password.
That was the status quo until my senior year English class with Mr. Wright—he let us call him Joe. Joe despised the roteness of memorization and believed instead in discovering words through reading and writing and conversation. Joe used the workbook’s vocab, but not the homework. He assigned his own.
Now, Joe was a creative guy. He had been in bands throughout his life. Every Wednesday we did “Write to Music” where Joe would put one song on repeat for about ten minutes and us students would sit in our desk-chairs, scribbling in our journals. Joe introduced me to the Aquabats, Pixies, and NOFX.
For vocabulary homework we were assigned VocéBalls, a pun on Pokéballs—the small orbs that captured and housed the cartoon monsters from the Pokémon ([Jap. trans.] (n.) “little monsters”) franchise of videogames, TV series, and playing cards.
Joe showed us how he wanted us to do the VocéBalls: On half of a sheet of paper, he drew a circle. In the middle of the circle, he drew another circle and wrote in a vocabulary word. Off of the inner circle he drew four lines, evenly dividing the circle into quarters like a compass. Starting in the northwest quadrant and going clockwise, he told us we would write the part of speech the word was (adj. for adjective, n. for noun, v. for verb, and so on) along with a simple definition of the word; in the southeast quadrant we were to write out the fill-in-the-blank sentence from our workbook; in the southwest quadrant we made up our own sentence using the word; and then in the northwest quadrant we drew an illustration relating to the word.
The next Friday, in the Reading/Writing Center, I reminded a fellow student Justin that our vocabulary homework was due. Justin shrugged his shoulders saying that he had already gotten the answers online. I shook my head and said, “VocéBalls.” I felt dumb saying it. Justin raised his eyebrows and then dug in his backpack, took out some notebook paper, and started on the twenty words for the week.
Another student Ben came in late, through the back door. Every morning, the three of us sat in the Reading/Writing Center. (I also felt dumb saying the initials “RWC.”) We were supposed to work with other high school students on their papers for class or junior and senior projects. Our teacher said we weren’t supposed to edit or proofread their work but consult with them. It felt like peer-to-peer therapy.
I had been in homerooms and assemblies throughout high school with both Justin and Ben, since we all had last names that began with W. Justin was fat, but popular because he was funny. On Halloween he dressed in green corduroy pants and tucked-in a white short-sleeve Oxford as Peter Griffin of the cartoon Family Guy. Ben was skinny and slimmed down from playing water polo. He told me about going under the water where the refs couldn’t see and pinching and kicking the opponents.
In the Reading/Writing Center, Ben sat down across from me and next to Justin.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked.
“VocéBalls,” Justin said, not looking up. If he could do at least one every couple of minutes then he’d just barely finish before English which was the next period.
Ben took out a piece of paper. He looked at Justin’s paper and drew the same VocéBall. I watched, but didn’t say anything.
“Hold up, you’re going too fast,” Ben said.
Justin snatched Ben’s paper, ripped it in half, and then threw the crumbled mess across the room.
“Come on!” Ben said. He tried to shove Justin, but Justin didn’t budge.
Since Justin played on defense for the football team I had used him as one of my sentences for VocéBalls: Bestial ((adj.) beastlike) Justin took down the quarterback.
Justin continued his homework and shifted his substantial ((adj.) considerable; large) forearms to block Ben’s sight. That week Ben got a zero on the vocab homework. The next week Ben asked to borrow some paper. He did his own VocéBalls.
Now, I look up “cheat” in the American Heritage Dictionary. I do a VocéBall:
NE: (v.) To act dishonestly.
SE: The politician cheated by having legally dead people vote for him.
SW: The student cheated on his quiz by copying the same sentence from another student.
NW: [drawing] There are two pieces of paper with the exact same sentences written on them.
Before spring break Natalie had broken up with her boyfriend, but I had become interested in an intern at the Florida Review. By the time things didn’t work out with my girl, Natalie had started to see a guy who was a welder. Natalie and I had settled into that defused tension of a “there might have been, but wasn’t” kind of friendship.
As Natalie did my Spanish mid-term for me, she asked me what I was planning to do after I graduated. I wanted one of the three writer’s dreams: getting paid to write, to edit, or to teach. Since I didn’t think I was good enough to do freelance or feature writing, and I was conflicted about teaching and going to grad school, also since I loved editing and then because I thought I had enough experience in it; I had applied for an apprenticeship with Orion magazine. I told Natalie I was sure they would accept me.
As a backup, I had applied to work for Lazy Moon Pizza near UCF. I thought at least I’d have something to do over the summer. When I got rejected from Orion I told people I was taking a year-off and that I was planning on going to grad school. But to me it felt like I had become the stereotypical former English major and wannabe writer working at a restaurant.
At Lazy Moon, I immediately became friends with José. José and I were the same age, but he was taking his time finishing his business major at UCF. We worked many shifts at the pizzeria side by side, me pulling the slices out of the oven that José had topped with ingredients.
José always looked out for me, since he had been hired right before me. I said it was like we were brothers from different mothers as I am white (half-Polish) and José is Spanish (Puerto Rican). José even translated the phrase for me: Hermanos de differantas madres.
One afternoon, I was at the Florida Review’s office when José called. I thought that he might need a ride since I’d given him a lift a few times after he had snapped the key off in his car’s ignition.
“I need some help with a paper,” José said.
“Well, you can go to the Writing Center on campus.” I always said that.
“It’s like 18 pages and all I have left to write is the conclusion.”
“Easy man,” I said, “Just re-read what you wrote and reiterate it.”
“How do I do that?” José asked.
“Have an introduction to your final paragraph, then summarize the different points in your paper, and then write one more sentence tying it all together, and there you go; you’re done.”
“Can you just write it?” José asked.
“I’ll pay you. Like $20. It’s due tomorrow,” José said.
“Are you kidding me?” I felt like I was asking myself, too. Twenty bucks was three hours of work, a half a tank of gas, maybe a cheap date. Twenty was twenty; but still, I knew it was wrong.
“Nah, I can’t,” I said. “I mean, what is this class for anyway?”
“Business ethics,” José said.
I laughed. It was too ironic.
“No, I can’t,” I said. “It’s unethical.”
“Fuck you then,” José said.
“—Nah, I understand. That’s cool. Well, thanks for no help,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”
It’s not that I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t. And now, when I think about it, at first, I don’t know why. I let Natalie do my quizzes, but I wouldn’t write José’s conclusion.
It seems like I took a moral stance: I wouldn’t take pay to do someone else’s work, or maybe I believed the greatest sin of an English major is plagiarism, or that I wouldn’t be a user. But that’s all bullshit. I was just as lazy as José. How hard could it have been to study Spanish?
The summer after I had graduated from UCF, I was on my way to Lazy Moon when I got a txt from Natalie asking if I was working that evening. I said yes. She asked me when I was going to hook her up. I said I didn’t know what she was talking about. She said for all the “help” she had given me. I said, I guess I could. She said she wanted a medium pizza and to get it for her. She was on her way.
At Lazy Moon, I ordered a medium and told the counter girl it was for my friend. Natalie came in. I bought the medium and gave it to her. I had used Natalie, and in the end I even paid her off.
The day the UCF cheaters story broke, I came into Lazy Moon at 10AM to make the pies for lunch. As I was tossing a 30-inch large in the air, Andy came up to the counter. Andy was a business major and one of his catchphrases at work was “I just managed the shit out of that situation.” Whenever Andy watched me toss he would critique me and call out pointers like an all-star player from the sidelines to a rookie.
To throw Andy off, I asked him what he thought of the UCF cheaters.
“Dude, it’s bad for the whole major,” Andy said.
To me it seemed like all the guys at work were either engineers or business majors.
“It’s even on fucking Good Morning America,” he said. “Did you see that shit?”
“I just read about it in the Future and Sentinel,” I said. Both the school and the city’s newspapers had covered the incident with the headlines “Cheating uproar hits UCF” and “200 admit cheating on UCF test.” I said that I had read that a student had dropped off an answer key at the professor’s bin attached to his door.
“I wish I knew that kid,” Andy said. “Because if I did, I’d beat the shit out of him. My roommate has to retake the whole mid-term again.”
A few weeks later, at the Lazy Moon holiday party, I talked to Andy’s roommate Mike who had been in the 4000-level Capstone business class with the 200 cheaters—he said he hadn’t been one—but all 600 students had to retake the mid-term. I asked Mike what had happened.
Mike explained to me that there had been e-mails circulating around the class about a “study guide.” It was answers straight from Pearson, the textbook publisher. Mike said the dumb thing was that the students had used their Knights account—a new mandatory e-mail system for all student correspondence. The University owned the account and all messages were recorded.
The professor had made an agreement with the dean of the College of Business that if the cheaters came forward and attended a four-hour ethics course then there would be no record of what they did. Mike said that it was bullshit.
I asked Mike for his e-mail and then wrote him asking him for a copy of the class syllabus as well as whether I could follow up with a few questions about his experience.
After the holidays, Mike e-mailed me apologizing for the long reply gap, but now that he had graduated he had some free time. He wrote: I wouldn’t mind answering some questions as long as anything that might get put into any published medium be [sic] approved by me first, just so nothing is taken out of context. Other than [sic] that, here is the syllabus you asked for.
I wrote Mike saying I was thinking of writing about everything. For an example of some literary journalism I had written, I pointed Mike to a link of a story I wrote about Tilly the killer whale and the incident of Dawn Brancheau’s death at SeaWorld where I had just collected facts from a lot of sources and retold the events. But I told Mike I was still mulling the UCF cheaters story around in my head and would get back to him.
I felt too close to everything. I considered how I had switched majors, from business to creative writing in my sophomore year. If I hadn’t switched, I imagine I could have been in that class.
Mike had told me that the professor’s lectures were online. So, I found one by a user named SubZeroCobra that posted a 15-minute video of Professor Richard Quin’s lecture after the mid-term.
In the video, the professor’s orange polo is tucked into his grey-green pants and his belly stretches the fabric but doesn’t hang over his waist. His belt is visible. He rubs his hands together like he’s washing them.
The professor says the lecture was going to be on Chapter 9 Mergers and Acquisitions as well as “alliances and those kinds of things.” But he says he’s not giving that lecture. “There was one lecture I hoped I’d never have to give.” In the background there is a lot of coughing from students.
The professor says he knew from the beginning that something was up. That the grade distribution was off. In the end, more than a third of the class cheated. He says, “Look at the person on the left side, look at the person on the right side. Statistically, one of them cheated on the exam.”
But what if your Spanish professor tells you to be sure to practice writing your essay before the final exam? You would probably think that that’s a good idea. You haven’t learned enough of the language to pass the final and you don’t have the help of a girl who did all the rest of your work, so you figure maybe you can memorize your essay.
But what if you give up on memorizing the essay and instead decide to sneak your essay into the final exam? And so, you write your essay inside of a Blue Book—the blank notebook to bring for written exams. You think this through: you will write in the second page of the Blue Book to have the first page hide your essay. You plan to use the first page during the exam as a brainstorm of what you already wrote.
You bring that Blue Book to the final. Actually, you bring two Blue Books to the final, just in case your professor asks that you trade your Blue Book with someone else on your left or right before starting—just in case—so that you have a blank one.
What if you did all this? You probably don’t care, because you think, Big deal. This is part of the culture.
But in all this, what if the you is me?
At first, I wanted to define what I did. I thought, Sure, you could call it cheating. But really? Is it that easy? I wanted to distance myself from those business students who cheated in their most upper level class to me who had just wanted to finish a bogus language requirement not part of my major at all.
This is what I wrote:
I believe nowadays we all cross lines. I don’t think integrity is something that can be carried out in this post-modern world. Integrity is an ideal. It sounds like something from Pleasantville where everything is black and white. I just can’t believe in integrity—and maybe it’s because a part of me does want to defend myself for defining what I believe—but I can respect candor ((n.) Honesty or directness, whether refreshing or distasteful.). I think candor is realistic, because sometimes things happen, and yeah you didn’t want it to happen, but it did, so now you can either hide from it or be open.
But that’s bullshit.
The first part of the UCF creed is integrity: I will practice and defend academic and personal honesty. It’s the first of five core values that make up the creed for the University of Central Florida. The school has plaques, posters, t-shirts, postcards, napkins, and any and every other kind of promotional signage and trinket printed with the core values (integrity, scholarship, community, creativity, excellence).
And the Honor Code of the Honors College—where Natalie answered my quiz and test questions—ends with To honor the traditional rules of conduct that guides the achievements of a scholar including contempt for plagiarism, cheating, falsification, or any other activity that threatens academic integrity and honesty.
The last envelope I got from UCF was stamped in red: DO NOT BEND. But it was crammed into my mailbox. I took it out and opened it. Inside was my diploma, folded.
And now, when you face my diploma on my wall—framed in a rosewood trim is a watercolor with a perspective from the Eternal Flame of Knowledge statue in front of the library and out over the reflection pond and toward the main administration building—on the left hand side, in the middle of the paper, and next to the phrase…with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining is a crease. I tried my best to smooth it out. And you could hardly see it, unless I point it out to you.