The Principle of the Matter| November 21, 2019
One glance at Leah’s test provided me with the solution. But to my horror, I realized Mrs. Neuman was staring at me
I’m sitting next to the kitchen table, phone in hand, about to do an unpleasant but crucial task. I need to call the school’s administration to forfeit my privilege of being the salutatorian at the upcoming high school graduation. Weird, no? Let me share my story with you.
My name is Penina. When I was in tenth grade, I loved to learn, do projects, and get involved with class politics. Everything was cool except for math. Algebra, to be precise. My grades hovered between 70 and 80, instead of my usual 95 to 100. I tried to succeed by studying with Leah Taub, which helped — but not as much as I wished.
Midyear we had a comprehensive exam. Read — excruciatingly difficult, no, nearly impossible. At one point, I looked up and realized that Leah and her test were in full view. I discreetly verified that some of my questions were answered correctly, but question number five, a particularly complicated one, wasn’t. Whoa, I was one number off. After recalculating, I fixed the careless mistake.
Questions number eight and nine were tricky, too. Maybe they should be checked. Oh, no! I was cheating! Nah, I wasn’t; I just wanted to verify that my answers were correct. After making sure the teacher wasn’t looking, I saw that Leah’s answers were different. In a flash, I corrected mine.
When we received the tests back, I smiled at the red 95. But a little voice said, it’s not an accurate score. I tucked away that voice, since, after all, I did eventually figure out the answers on my own.
I don’t know how I continued with that crooked line of reasoning, or how nobody caught me, but somehow my high marks prevailed.
In 11th grade, new and exciting challenges were waiting — except for trigonometry. If I thought algebra was challenging, well, trig was a million times worse. Determined to succeed the honest way, steady sessions with Leah were arranged. Yet those maddening rules were so complicated, they didn’t seem to penetrate my brain. When a returned test featured a red 75, I panicked.
The yetzer hara worked full-time to convince me to go back to my incorrect ways, especially since my seat was conveniently located right behind Leah. My heart soared as high marks made their appearance once again.
There was one particularly harrowing incident. During a grueling exam, I pondered over questions that literally seemed like Chinese. One glance at Leah’s test provided me with the solution. But to my horror, I realized Mrs. Neuman was staring at me. I froze. Her icy blue eyes bore into my consciousness, making me feel like Silly Putty. I was positive she would walk over to my desk, pick up my exam, and rip it into 27 pieces.
From then on, my rule was, “Be cautious before you look.” The end of the year freed me of trig, and my GPA was decent.
Senior year arrived, the year when our class rules! The year of the yearbook! And the year of calculus (groan). If I thought trig was hard, well, calculus was like gobbledygook. Uh-oh, this was getting-into-sem year! Who would accept me if my GPA was low due to calculus?
I attempted with all my powers to understand this difficult division of math. Intense study sessions with Leah were held weekly. Despite it all, my marks were consistently in the low 70s.
One night, exhaustion and frustration seeped through my very being. Did my math grades really affect being accepted to sem? You bet they did! The administration wouldn’t be too impressed with low marks in any one area. By midyear, we would (hopefully) receive our acceptance letters, so then I could relax about grades in math, but until then... That’s it, I decided, I’ll make use of Leah only for these few tests, and from then on, honesty will be my trademark!
Little did I know that changing one’s direction wasn’t so simple.
I exercised great caution if I needed to check any answers against Leah’s. My dishonest ways resulted in decent grades.
When the envelope bearing the Bnos Leah logo arrived detailing the good news of my acceptance, my joy knew no bounds. I could already envision living in Yerushalayim in the sem of my dreams!
I should have stopped the cheating then, but I didn’t. The weird thing was that my consciousness didn’t even gnaw at me.
One day I was called into the vice principal’s office. I began to shake, as I was sure she’d discovered what I had been doing.
“Penina, have a seat. I have the honor of informing you that you have been chosen as this year’s class salutatorian. Congratulations!”
“Huh?!” I exclaimed.
“Don’t be so humble. You’re a super student who has proven herself in all areas, and you deserve this honor,” she said with a gleaming smile.
I mumbled my thanks, and left the office. The rest of the day was one long blur. Upon arriving home, my feet led me straight to my room.
I sat on the bed and felt nauseous. If the administration knew my terrible secret, I’m sure they would get rid of me like last year’s fashion. My thoughts were like the tangled wires of a computer. I needed to confide in somebody. Yet, how could such lowly behavior be shared with anyone? Mom and Dad would plotz from shame. My friends — no way! There was my image to maintain. Help!
All of the sudden, Mrs. Neuman’s face surfaced. She would be able to advise me and understand me. I booked a time to speak with her.
The next day, after school, I sat in the empty teacher’s lounge, across from my former teacher.
“Penina, good to see you. What’s new?”
“It’s like this. Um, I don’t know exactly where to begin—” and then the tears escaped with abandon.
“This sounds serious. Try to calm down. Listen, you can feel comfortable with me. Whatever it is, it will remain between the two of us.”
Her reassuring tone encouraged me to spill out the whole messy story. “I don’t know what to do now,” I sniffled.
Mrs. Neuman sighed and said, “Young lady, that’s some heavy load to carry around.”
I smiled. It was so nice to be understood.
“Penina, I’m afraid to say that your news doesn’t totally surprise me, as last year, my suspicions were high. I wasn’t totally sure, so I figured if you were guilty, my stare would scare you away from cheating further. Unfortunately, I was wrong. This is a serious matter. I can only advise you, but I think you should seriously consider forfeiting the honor at graduation.”
“I feel that way, too. What about sem? Is it okay to go?”
“I’m not a rav. Obviously, they don’t care if you’re a math genius, but it’s the principle of the matter. Good, honest people don’t cheat.”
I suddenly felt very small. “Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.”
“Hatzlachah. Daven to Hashem, and feel free to come speak to me anytime.”
The meeting left me depressed and hopeful, if that’s possible. My first job was to call the administration. My road would be rocky and rough but somehow, I felt like it was going to work out.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 786)
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