Broken trust – cheating off a friend

Being passive when a friend cheated off me was my reaction as a teenager. I would have a stronger, more courageous reaction today.

hand with cheating notes

Back in university I was writing an exam when I noticed that a friend seemed to be looking at my answer booklet. At first it wasn’t particularly obvious, but I had a sense that he was leaning in just a little too closely to me. As time went on it seemed too coincidental that when I changed pages and moved to a new problem in the exam, he did as well. By the end of the 3 hours I was totally convinced that he was copying my answers to all of the problems, so with a few minutes left to review my answers I went back and tidied up a few things including changing some of my final answers. I noted that he followed along and made the same changes.

We were in a very large lecture hall and there was quite a commotion when time was up. I let my friend get ahead of me to hand in his booklet. Before handing in my booklet I took a couple of moments to change my final answers on a couple of questions back to the original answers prior to my last-minute review as I was sure that my original answers were correct.

A sleight of hand

Our prof marked the papers very quickly and gave them back at the start of a subsequent class, giving them out in ascending order of the marks. You can imagine how surprised my friend was when I did not receive my paper at virtually the same time that he did. When I sat down at my desk with my paper, he snatched it out of my hand and compared it to his own paper. I could tell that he was simmering, unable to understand the differences from answers that he had clearly copied from me.

Never really trusted him again

I never said anything to him about what I suspected and then confirmed, preferring to stay friends. Knowing that he knew that I knew what he had done and somehow I had foiled him was enough. I stayed away from him in exams after that – not so much that I cared about him cheating off me, but worried instead that somehow I would be dragged down in what could have been viewed as a cheating scheme. I worked again with him in groups, but I never really trusted him again. I didn’t speak to anyone else about what I knew and allowed him to continue to have an accepted and good place within our class.

Cheating isn’t a mistake

That was my reaction then. My reaction now is quite different. I would terminate this person as a friend in a similar situation, maybe not saying as much to him directly but through avoidance. I have learned that friends don’t jeopardize other friends even as they look to improve their own fortunes. At a more basic level, friends don’t cheat – at least the people who I call friends don’t cheat. Everyone can make a mistake, but cheating isn’t a mistake. It’s deliberate. My friends put in the hard work. They don’t shirk their studying or homework. They don’t try to pass off the work of others as their own. I wouldn’t work in a group with this person, because just by being passive and being in the group I would be bending my standards.

Yes, my friend did something wrong, but I did so as well with my passive reaction. It has only been as I have moved through life that I have understood the high standards to which I need to hold myself. Passivity doesn’t measure up any better than bad behavior. My standards have stepped up a notch, but so has my courage and that is an important point. I did the best that I thought that I could do at the time that I was a teenaged student. Confronted with the same situation today, knowing what I know and having experienced what I have experienced, I would do better.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.