About the Author

Joseph Gregg is a senior at MIT, majoring in Chemical-Biological Engineering and minoring in Economics. Recognizing the importance of communication skills (both oral and written) in addition to a strong quantitative background, Joseph has made sure to take at least one communication-intensive or humanities course per term during his tenure at the Institute. Accordingly, during the spring term of 2008, he chose to take 21W.730, Writing on Contemporary Issues.

Que Será, Será

Joseph Gregg

To preserve your self respect it is sometimes necessary to lie and cheat.
        -- Robert Byrne, grandmaster chess champion

I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The end of my first term at MIT was almost over, and all that stood between me and a much needed winter break was my calculus final exam. Unfortunately, getting through the exam with a passing grade would be easier said than done. I had failed two of the three midterm exams for the course, and failing the final would mean that I would not pass the course, thus having to re-take it next semester. Not wanting to travel down that path, I decided that I needed to get any edge that I could, and that I would use a small, pre-made cheat sheet to aid me during the exam. If I sat in the back of the room and was careful about using it, no one would notice. After all, there would be over two hundred people taking the exam, and the graduate teaching assistants certainly could not keep an eye on every test-taker at all times.

During the term, I had made nearly every attempt to learn and to understand the material presented in the class. I spent every Thursday night at my teaching assistant Vera's office hours plugging through complex integrals and derivates until my wrist hurt from writing. Unfortunately, Vera had little compassion for my failures and was convinced that the only way to master the material was to solve extraordinarily difficult problems. In this way, understanding basic concepts would somehow follow. I constantly found myself questioning this practice, thinking, how the heck am I going to solve these exception-to-the-rule problems, if I have no concept of what the rule actually is? Clearly, teaching fundamental theory and developing a sound foundation of knowledge in her students was a foreign concept to Vera, and she assumed that everyone in her section understood the basics well. Not me. In addition, when someone would have a question on a fundamental concept or a seemingly easy question, she would usually arrogantly reply, "This is easy, simple, and trivial." Easy, simple, and trivial for a math PhD who has studied this garbage for the past ten years. As a result, Vera and I did not have the best working relationship, and I soon grew frustrated with her constant derision.

I placed it onto my scanner, saved it as an image file, and shrunk the document to the size of a baseball trading card.

In addition to going to Vera's "help sessions," I also met with the professor to talk about my progress. Our meeting took place after I had received a fifth-week flag warning me that I was in danger of failing the course, and after about five minutes, it was evident that this meeting was less about remedying my situation and more about testing my knowledge of calculus. I sat helplessly in his office while he gave me question after question, testing my understanding of one topic after another. He never told me whether my final answers, or approach for that matter, were correct; he just kept giving me more problems to do. When I finally finished with this session, I asked him for some advice on how to improve my standing in the class. To this, he told me that he was in a rush to get somewhere and to go talk to my teaching assistant and ask her for help. That's right. Pass the buck. Make me someone else's problem. When I tried to schedule follow up meetings, he either had a meeting conveniently scheduled at the time I suggested or was off campus. So much for the devoted faculty who are apparently dedicated to undergraduate education. He clearly had no interest in helping me pass the course; our only meeting was means for him to confirm what my exam scores had already told him.

At this point, it was nearing 1:00 AM the night before the 18.02 final exam, and as I sat in front of my open Calculus with Analytical Geometry book, I gave the idea a final sanity check. The plan is sound and it's the only way to pass. I have no choice. That moment, I closed my book, turned on my computer, and opened a blank Microsoft Word document. For the next hour, I keyed in various formulas related to obscure integrals, summations of sequences and series, as well as several concepts in linear algebra that I had failed to memorize over the course of the semester. When I was finished, I was left with roughly a page of notes that, along with what I had memorized, would allow me to pass the final exam.

Here goes nothing. I printed the page and gave the sheet a quick look-over to check for obvious mistakes. Seeing none, I placed it onto my scanner, saved it as an image file, and shrunk the document to the size of a baseball trading card. Hoping that it was still readable, I printed out a copy. That'll do. I held the sheet at arm's length, still able to read the text. Wasting no time, I then grabbed a pair of scissors, cut out the page, and placed it down on my desk.

I stared at the sheet for several minutes in silence, not trying to memorize the information, just looking at it and thinking about all it represented. After about five minutes, I noticed that I was sweating and breathing hard. Calm down, man. You got this. No one's gonna catch you. I continued to reassure myself that all would be okay, and that without the sheet, I was doomed to certain failure. I need to get my mind off this. Maybe a shower and some Comedy Central will do the trick. I followed through with a cold shower and some stand-up comedy featuring Carlos Mencia, and within an hour, I was ready to get some sleep.

With a sense of urgency, I ran to my desk, cut several pieces of tape, and carefully secured the sheet to the outer wrist cuff of my turtleneck.

I awoke the next morning normally, to the sound of my radio tuned in to a frequency of static. I looked at the time: 8:45. That left forty-five minutes before I had to be at my calculus final exam. I sat up, took a deep breath, and started to get ready for the task at hand. The sheet was exactly where I had left it the previous night, still on my desk next to my computer. My task for the morning would be finding a way to tape it to my arm without it coming off or being noticeable. Think. Think. Think. Come on. Don't blow it now. Then it came to me. I would tape the sheet to the outer sleeve of a tight fitting turtleneck, and wear a baggy sweatshirt over it. If, on the exam, I needed access to the sheet, I could discretely roll up my sweatshirt sleeve just enough to view it. Great. Let's do it.

I made my way over to my office supplies box and fumbled though it, looking for a roll of Scotch tape. No, not duct tape. Not packaging tape. Not masking tape. Where the heck is my Scotch tape? I reached the bottom of the box, finding nothing. It has to be somewhere. Then, as I glanced around my room, back toward my desk, I saw it sitting right next to my computer. With a sense of urgency, I ran to my desk, cut several pieces of tape, and carefully secured the sheet to the outer wrist cuff of my turtleneck. When I felt satisfied that the job was complete, I tried the shirt on. I then wiggled my wrist about to see if it would make a sound, and, to my surprise, there was nothing but silence. Finally, I opened my shirt drawer and found the baggiest sweatshirt I owned, put it on, and took a look at myself in the mirror. Perfect.

After taking a few minutes to sharpen some pencils and conduct a final glance over my notes, I left my dorm and began the five minute march toward the gymnasium where the exam would be held. As I walked, I thought about what I was about to do, and started to feel guilty. Even if I don't get caught, it's still wrong. You haven't cheated in eighteen years. Why are you starting now? This inner struggle continued for what seemed to be the longest five minute walk I had ever taken. Every voice inside of me told me to get rid of the cheat sheet and to take the exam honestly, like everyone else in the class. However, when I had arrived at the gymnasium, I still had the sheet taped to my sleeve and was intent on following through with the plan.

It was 9:20, ten minutes before the exam, when I took my place at a desk in the back of the large, poorly lit room. In the front of the gym, the teaching assistants and the professor were laughing and chatting away. Man, I hate you guys. Just wait til I ace this exam. Then we'll see who's laughing. However, my detestation for the teaching staff quickly turned back to anxiety for what I was about to do. As I silently sat alone with my thoughts, I started to fidget and a cold sweat came over me. I can't do this. At that moment, I excused myself to use the restroom.

After about a minute of staring at myself, I tore the sheet from my shirt, threw it into the toilet, and flushed it down.

Like my walk to the exam, the walk to the restroom seemed especially long. A million thoughts entered my head at once. You can get kicked out of MIT or you can fail out of MIT. I played out a number of possible scenarios in my head ranging from passing the exam and class using the cheat sheet with little fanfare to being caught red-handed and being escorted out of the exam. The more I thought about it, the more risky and the less appealing the idea seemed. I finally reached the restroom, and when inside, locked the door and took a long look in the mirror. After about a minute of staring at myself, I tore the sheet from my shirt, threw it into the toilet, and flushed it down. Oh well, que será, será. I left the bathroom in a daze, not really understanding what I had just done, and made my way back to my desk.

By now, the teaching assistants were passing out exams, and as I realized what I had just done, a panic came over me. It's gone. It's gone! The palms of my hands were sweating and my left leg started to shake nervously. What would happen if I was tested on one of the integrals on my sheet? What would happen if I failed the exam? What would my parents and friends think if I had to take this course again? After this third question, I paused, gave it some thought, and my mind reformulated a new question. What would my parents and friends think if they found out that I had resorted to cheating to pass my classes? At that moment, a sense of calm came over me, and I knew that I had done the right thing.

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