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Karen Bergreen Headshot

Cheating to Win

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I just heard on the news that there was a cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School. New Yorkers all know Stuyvesant. It's is the one of the best high schools in Manhattan and is known as a feeder to top colleges. The student took pictures of a Regents exam and was expelled for cheating. Some of his classmates and their parents complained on the news.

"Couldn't they give him a warning?" one student asked.

"We need to know why he did it, " a concerned mom -- not his -- said. "Maybe he needed the money."

My kids are still small and they haven't felt the pressure yet to do well in school. They are still learning how to line up and to remember their backpacks. But they definitely know that cheating is wrong. They do it anyway. How else does a six-year-old beat Grandma at monopoly every time? I refuse to play pick-up-sticks with them any more.

It's a lesson they will have to keep learning. It will take time outs, game confiscations maybe even a canceled play date, birthday party or trip to an amusement park.

Zero tolerance for cheating in our house.

But I get why there is support for this kid. Cheaters are rewarded in this country. Rielle Hunter is probably making a killing off her book. This politician lied on his taxes and that sports figure took steroids.

I was proud of only one paper I wrote in law school. It was for a teacher I admired, the most accessible, compassionate and dynamic teacher in the place. I took every class he taught. Regardless of the subject. If he had taught a class called "Law and Actuarial Tables," I would have been riveted (my apologies to actuaries). I didn't mind taking his exams, reading his assignments or writing papers for him. It was fun.

In fact, I went a little nuts on this one paper, not just making trips to my law school library but to other law school libraries and to non-law libraries. He gave me an A on the paper and thought it would make a good article.

A good article. How cool. An academic article. Me? Of course I would work on it. I went home for the summer and I actually worked on "my article." I would be published. It was all very exciting. I made more trips to more libraries and, when speaking to others, threw in phrases like "the article I'm working on" any chance I could.

In the fall when I returned to school, I dropped by his office with a draft of the article. He wasn't my teacher, I thought. He was my colleague. I was sure he would have a million corrections. Lots of red pen. Lots of admonitions, but I was ready for it.

I didn't hear from him for a few weeks.

There was no e-mail then. Yes I'm that old. And I would never ever have called a law school professor on the phone. I wasn't taking a class with him. So, my only option was to knock on the door of his office.

I was nervous. He probably thought the article was stupid and didn't want to tell me. "I was kidding about an article ,"he would say. "You just do what you're doing and graduate and go off to your little law job. Academics are for others."

Or he would say he was so busy. He was writing a book, teaching two classes, and a seminar.

But this was my chance. I, by the way, am a timid person about this stuff, so it was hard, but I went to his office.

He wasn't there.

Oh well. As I was leaving the building, I ran into him in the parking lot.

"Hey, I was just coming to see you." For me, that was bold.

"Great," he said.

"About my article."

"What article?"

"The one I sent you."

He was vague but he reached into his briefcase.

"Yes. Here. Here it is. I have an outline for you."

An outline?

And he handed me back my draft but it was octuple spaced with parenthetical notes of things that "need research."

I looked at the front page. There it was: my title and underneath his name with a little copyright sign.

Ok, I'm a loser. I didn't say anything. I was stunned. I'm conflict averse (which is probably why I left the law) and this scenario had never occurred to me. Ever. I ran home, crying. My article would never get published. Maybe it would, but it would have his name.

My tears turned to anger within minutes. He copyrighted my ideas and my language. He was a law school professor. Not an ethics one clearly.

I screamed about it for a few days. On the phone mostly.

"You have to confront him," more than one friend said to me.

And so I did.

This time, when I knocked on his door, he was there.

"May I speak with you," I asked timidly.

"Sure, what's up?"

What's up? What's up?

I found a great lasagna recipe that requires no cooking or preparation. It's called "stealing."

"I was confused with the paper you gave me. My article."

He didn't answer.

"It's my paper and it has your name."

"Sure, let me know when you've done that extra research."

"But it was my article and you are changing it."

"No. I'm writing an article. And I'd like you to do some research on it based on research you did for a paper last year."

"But it's my theory. My research."

"Oh don't worry. That'll all get changed. Let me know. I can get another student to do it. "

He picked up the phone to make a call.

Again, I was stunned. This wasn't my first day on the planet but this was a shocker. This was the man who had come to school enraged every day during the Anita Hill hearings. This was the man who rolled his eyes at the powerful. This was the man who cared about his students.

Or claimed to.

I was livid.

I am a vengeful person. Not something I am proud of, but I wouldn't be surprised if my epitaph read "she held a grudge."

But I'm not a complete idiot. Keying his car would have made me feel good for only five hours.

Now used to knocking on doors, I knocked on the door of my second favorite law school professor. He taught evidence and he had a heart.

I asked if I could speak to him about a sensitive subject.

He said yes.

Looking back on it, it was probably the most interesting thing that had happened to him in years, but then it seemed embarrassing.

I told him the whole story. I cried a little too.

We spoke for hours. He told me I could tell people but warned me that my other professor would be fighting for his career. That it was his word, a tenured, respected even beloved professor over a student with no record at all. He wasn't unkind. He was honest.

I didn't want to be Anita Hill.

It wasn't worth it.

So I went on with my law school life. He is still a beloved and respected academic.

What do I take from this?

And how does it relate to this kid from Stuyvesant?

I'll tell you. That teacher wasn't new to stealing. He handled my accusations with aplomb. And something I didn't mention in my previous comments. He did this to other people. There was a group of us -- maybe six or seven - who all had a similar experience with him. We got together every now and then in a support and decided that it wasn't worth it to go after him. Nobody wanted to be the hero.

My guess is he had been doing this for a while. And nobody stopped him. He was getting second chances from people all the way up the ladder. And then he achieved a position of rank that no one could assail.

That's a guess, but we should be careful about promoting cheaters. That kid didn't glance at another student's paper. He took out his phone, set it on a camera, focused and clicked.