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I was just the average high school student trying to figure out who I liked, if anyone liked me, or if I even liked myself, whoever I thought I was. Unintentionally, somewhere between recess and advanced calculus, I had tricked people into thinking I was smart. I had perfected a method of note-taking and studying, regurgitating what they wanted on projects, essays, and tests. They are the elusive, omniscient creators of all things to know and not to know. One after another, I’d receive a perfect (or near perfect) grade, an A dazzling on the front page of my work in bright red ink. By my junior year in high school, the bar had been set and anything less was just that.

Come senior year, I was on the ship to valedictorian island with a prestigious crew, the true intellects who actually did have a clue what they were doing. With only one more perfect report card to go I, a highly driven, college bound, approval seeking seventeen year-old, did the unthinkable. I cheated.

It was period 4, psychology, which, in hindsight, makes perfect sense. I sat on the cold blue plastic seat waiting for Mr. White Hair Comb Over to pass back my test results, but instead he handed me my morality. My ability to discern right from wrong. Good from bad. Honest from a cheat.

Mr. White Hair Comb Over had layers of white hair that draped over his forehead in one thick feathered swoop, Big Bird’s grandfather. His winter hair almost matched his cold gray eyes. A stout man, he paraded up and down the maze of desks, returning our latest exam. “Take out a pencil,” he directed, authorizing us teenagers to correct our own papers. Our own papers. As if us over-privileged big kids could teach the world a thing about principles. Words like honesty, integrity, and morality lingered in the air behind him as he paraded up and down the rows of desks.

When it came to keeping my own score, the pressure would push on my heart, pumping along the veins of my neck and pulsing through the pencil clinched between my fingertips.

Mr. White Hair Comb Over began, “Number one.” I held my breath. “True.” I exhaled. I placed a check mark by the capital T I drew a week ago. Relieved to get the first one correct, the grip on my pencil nearly relaxed.

Number two,” he drawled. “True.”

No. I struck an X through the number and waited. It’s okay. It’s just one. I thought. Without my permission, the ball of my foot began to tremor sending my right leg into tiny convulsions.

Number three. False.” Another X. Panic began rising, blushing my cheeks a shade pinker than pale. Two wrong in a row? Do I have the right paper? I glanced at the student’s paper next to me and asked them to confirm number three. A second X marked my paper, and then a third, and a tornado began to take shape, a funnel forming around my seat, leaving me alone in the quiet of the eye.

With every wrong answer, the wind and dust and debris picked up. Desperate to survive, my pencil took on a life of its own, transforming Ts to Fs and Fs to Ts. All the sudden, I was nine again, rollerblading downhill and not knowing how to stop. And before I knew it - crash, burn - it was over.

Please pass your papers forward,” Mr. White Hair Comb Over commanded, lifting me out of my trance.

Hand over head, papers snaked through the rows and into his open palm. When the pile made it to me in the front, I positioned mine at the bottom, unsure of what I had just done. As he passed my desk, I handed the stack over as though it was ablaze and scalding my trembling hand. I think I only changed enough to pass but not too many to be noticed. I think. I thought. I hoped. I prayed.

The rest of the day, I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. Maybe even confess to Mr. White Hair Comb Over. Beg for forgiveness. But then, everyone would know I was a fake, a fraud, a sham, a hocus pocus brainiac. So I kept it between me and my soul and begged the heavens for a free pass. After all, didn’t I deserve a little grace?

Turns out, I didn’t. Mr. White Hair Comb Over had his own deception to reveal. Completely aware of teenagers and painstakingly unaware of my pressures, he had photocopied the papers before instructing us to grade our answers and our own integrity. Like a sick, twisted game of Memory, he had flipped papers one at time, matching each student graded version to the original copy!

Six of us were charged with a high school felony that day; paying for bail with a fail. For me, a big fat, never seen before ZERO.

What Mr. White Hair Comb Over psychology teacher didn’t understand (or maybe he did and didn’t care) was that his trick would cost me the crown, the title of valedictorian, the highest academic achievement and my life’s work up to that point. The

other culprits’ and their shining moment of shoddy morality didn’t risk the same high stakes. Josh Dunkin actually found joy in collecting zeros, wearing them proudly like a patch on his letterman jacket. Not me. To me, that zero was a symbol of complete and utter failure. An image destroyed. A dream crushed. My insecurities exposed for looky-loos to tap on the glass and mock me like a caged animal.

Unacceptable. Not a chance. I’d take that zero and pull my grade back up to an A by the end of the year or else. Or else, I’d be found out a fake.

So I did. I showed White Hair Comb Over what I was made of. But when I earned the A in his class, it didn’t feel right. It’s funny how a mere moment of weakness has the power to destroy a thousand moments of fortitude. So on graduation day, when I took my place on stage next to the other valedictorians, the true Einsteins accepting intellectual celebrity, I no longer believed I deserved it. Honor doesn’t coexist with shame.

It’s true, I swapped true for false and in turn swapped my integrity for the grade, for that image. But the truth is, it didn’t matter whether I changed one answer or all of them. I put perfection on a pedestal. Above the person I wanted to be.

I don’t recall what I learned in psycho’s psychology class that year. I do, however, remember how I felt, when fear of failure had me in a choke hold, submissive to unrealistic expectations. I allowed White Hair Comb Over’s sadistic experiment to define my worth. From there, if I didn’t earn it, fight for it, drown for it, wrestle a gator for it, it wasn’t mine to have.

The lesson lies within the lie. Why did I do it? What was I chasing? Who was I trying to be? I wasn’t chasing valedictorian, or perfect grades. I was chasing the fantasy of perfection. Of the person I believed I ought to be instead of just being. And therein lies the true test. The true test was never the one on the paper. The true test was of character and knowing that the only person grading you, is you.

To this day, I am uncertain whether Mr. White Hair Comb Over intended to teach the lesson I regrettably learned. Surely, Josh Dunkin has completely wiped it from his memory. Not me. For me the lesson turned me into a writer. There are lots of stories that shape us, but there are only a handful that make us.

*Valedictorian - a student, typically having the highest academic achievements of the class, who delivers the speech at a graduation ceremony.



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