The Chemistry Cheat by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By Cheating

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Chemistry was and remains my least favorite subject, probably because of the circumstances under which I first studied it. I had chemistry in my sophomore year in high school. The school, which was 7th through 12th grade, was overcrowded, and a new middle school was being built but hadn’t been completed, so our school went on double session. Thankfully the following year we resumed a normal class schedule.

At this point I had to make a split-second choice. I could stop and tell Mr. C or just let it go.

My first class that year, which started at 7:10 AM, was chemistry. In addition to the gruesome start time, we had a new teacher, Mr. C, who had come from an advanced technical high school. We never knew the circumstances of why he’d left, but it was obvious he didn’t want to be in our school teaching “regular” students. He made it clear that we were inferior to his previous students and we would never make good scientists.

Many of us objected to this characterization, and I did, because I’d aced my first biology course and competed well as a rep to our school’s state biology team. But chemistry began to throw me. Mr. C gave boring lectures about moles (not the animals) and made us use slide rules for calculation (which I fumbled terribly). Maybe I wasn’t very good at science after all, I thought.

My lab work was terrible, but I was fortunate to be friendly for years with Shirley, my lab partner, whose lab work was meticulous. Shirley was nerdier than I (and I was pretty nerdy), and wanted to be a pharmacist. My partnership with Shirley was helping my grade, and, despite Mr. C’s disparagement of us, my test results were adequate, as it turned out. Not so for some of my other classmates; they were the cool kids on the football team, but hopeless when it came to chemistry. Many of them tried, but struggled as the year continued. Mr. C did little to help them, just criticized them.

Even though I was nerdy, I hadn’t been seriously bullied, but I wasn’t anywhere near popular, either. The football players tended to snicker at me, and their mean girlfriends were no fun in gym. In chemistry class, the football team members generally ignored me, and I was OK with that. Then they started realizing that I was keeping up with material, however marginally, which was better than they were doing.

One early morning in the spring, we were settling down for a test, and Charlie, one of the dimmer football players, sat down next to me. He was very big and tall, and I realized, as the test was beginning, that he could see over my arm to my paper. We made eye contact, and he had a begging expression on his face.

At this point I had to make a split-second choice. I could stop and tell Mr. C or just let it go. I breathed in and decided to let it go. When we got our marks, I did reasonably well on the test, and Charlie at least had made a C. He looked at me and mouthed “Thanks.” I ended up with a B for the year. The following fall, we learned that Mr. C returned to the advanced technical high school. For the rest of my time in high school, the football team looked more favorably on me, and while I was hardly a member of the in crowd, my life was less stressful.

Looking back on this incident now, was what I did right? No. Was it understandable? Yes. When I think about it deeply, I believe what influenced me in that split second to let Charlie look was my reaction to Mr. C and his arrogance and unwillingness to help the students, even those who were trying hard.

Other than Charlie getting a mark that he really didn’t deserve, no one else was disadvantaged–that is my rationalization as I look at this cheating episode today. I doubt that Charlie went on to be a chemistry major, and I hope Shirley fulfilled her dream of becoming a pharmacist. The next year I aced the second-year biology course and the advanced placement test. Although I didn’t become a scientist, my confidence in my scientific ability was restored.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. No guilt please Marian, I would done the same!

    I was a lousy chemistry student, and that was the only course for which my parents hired a “tutor” for me – a great racket for teachers to make a little extra money after school!
    I did pass the course and the Regents but just barely!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A fascinating story, Marian. And yes; a real gray area that you address. I think I could have gotten you off on an “aiding and abetting” charge. But still a tough call morally and you described it so well.

    And congrats on your science aptitude. Also, what is is with chemistry teachers? My high school chemistry was by far my worst teacher. The only thing that kept it interesting was all his malapropisms, which we used to keep a list of.

    • Marian says:

      I’m learning that many people had bad chemistry teachers in high school, John, and I can’t figure out what that’s about at all. I’ve heard both bad and good from friends at their various colleges but didn’t even think of taking chemistry by then. Most biology teachers were excellent or at least adequate. Maybe there is something warmer and fuzzier about biology, who knows?

  3. Suzy says:

    Mare, I would have done the same thing. In fact, your story reminds me that I used to give the Spanish homework answers to this one boy in my class, he even thanked me for it when he wrote in my yearbook. I can’t imagine ever taking any class at 7:10 a.m., even if it was one that I liked, so kudos to you for making it through that dreadful class, and for helping Charlie get through it too. (I never took chemistry.)

    • Marian says:

      Good to know I’m not the only one who helped other students, Suzy. Come to think of it, Charlie signed my yearbook. Even though I’m a morning person, that class was too early for me. Surprising (but a relief for you) that you never took chemistry. I might have tried to avoid it, but we weren’t allowed to take advanced biology without having the chemistry class (although it turned out there was nothing in that chemistry class that I needed for bio), and I really wanted to take the advanced bio class.

  4. Dave Ventre says:

    The first time I stopped one of the dimmer bulbs in grade school from seeing my answers, I paid for it with a nasty beating after school. After that, I was literally an open book. Enforcing the morals of the immoral wasn’t worth the bloodshed.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    I agree with others that there is some good rationale for helping a fellow student against an unreasonable and unhelpful teacher. Also happy you regained some confidence in your science abilities—kids all deserve a decent chance to shine and it is so easy to discourage them.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, Khati, it’s painful to imagine how much talent has been lost to educators who don’t care, are biased, or just don’t know any better. It’s likely that Charlie himself didn’t worry about being a chemist, just wanting to pass the course so he could continue to play football. I feel more for some of the kids who would be discouraged from science for good.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    It just takes one bad teachers to undermine a student’s confidence. Like you, mine was also in high school Chemistry. If Mr. C had offered any help to students who were floundering, you might have been more inclined to block the football player from copying your test answers. As it was, no harm was done and it helped you, so I say it was justified.

    • Marian says:

      Exactly, Laurie. I might have done something different if Mr. C had tried to help all the students, but his teaching was so bad that all of us couldn’t help but hate chemistry after that.

  7. Great story-telling, Marian! What characters: the snotty teacher, the mean girls, the sad, chem-fumbling Charlie. May Tom Lehrer and the dulcet tones of his periodic chart be with you always!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Charles, now I have that periodic tune in my mind. Every once in a while I do have to write about chemistry (professionally) and remember to be clear and kind when I do, based on that high school year in chemistry.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great story, Mare. I don’t blame you one bit for the tact you took, for many reasons. The bad teacher was one, helping the floundering football player was another (and he showed his appreciation).

    In 10th grade Geometry, I let a cute wrestler look at my tests. I never gave it another thought. I don’t know how he did on them or if it helped him, but I got A’s so maybe he learned something from me.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Wouldn’t it be fun to know if those fellows really did learn something? Geometry was another subject I disliked (bad teacher) but I ended up acing the standardized test. Who knew?

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