sept2013JWlesko

I’m 16 and I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve kissed boys before on New Year’s, but I really want to fall in love. I feel like my life won’t be complete until I’m in a relationship (even if the relationship won’t be long term—I want to know what heartbreak is like, too). I always hear people say, “Be patient, when you’re ready love will find you,” but I feel like I’m prepared and I just want to get a boyfriend and finally have some damn sex already. Help? —Seeking Love

Seeking, I feel you. It’s not really your fault that you feel this way—for most of your life, you’ve probably gotten the message that love is everything, you should do whatever it takes to find it, and if you don’t find it the first time you try you’re a hopeless loser who deserves to die alone. And if this is a feeling you’ve manifested all on your own, you’re still not wrong to feel this way, because love can be indescribably amazing, which is why so many people sound like maniacs when they try to describe it.

I never dated or fell in love with anyone in high school, so I spent four entire years completely unburdened by love, and I didn’t have sex until I was 22. In high school it was frustrating—some of my friends were dating, and I definitely had unfulfilled crushes. A few “Why not me?” feelings crept in sometimes, and it’s also not fun to feel like you are ready for something that the world doesn’t see fit to give you. I felt better once I realized there wasn’t anyone in my town I really wanted to date, so here are three great things that might help you feel better if you’re not at that point yet:

1. You’re already complete, on your own, just as you are right now.
2. Rushing into love is a great way to end up with a jerk, or settling for a relationship that doesn’t really work.
3. You don’t need to be in a relationship to have sex.

The idea that you won’t be complete until you are with someone is appealing, because it’s sort of nice to think about another person bringing out your best qualities, but also sort of untrue. You are totally awesome right now, I assure you. The time you spend single is not wasted time! And most relationships won’t work if you’re not bringing your best version of yourself to them, so no matter what, you still have to put the work in to be OK with yourself, and to feel like you are every bit as confident in a relationship as you are out of one. Now is a good time to do that! Pushing for a relationship at this point might end in heartbreak, and heartbreak is not romantic—HEARTBREAK IS TERRIBLE, and it sucks up your life, fills you with dread, and makes you want to crawl under a porch like an injured house cat and die. Then the next day you get to feel that way all over again. It’s pretty impossible to get homework done.

If you’re ready to have sex, congratulations! Sex is wonderful, and the good news is that you can have it even if you’re not in a relationship. If you feel like you’re ready to get down with the physical stuff even if you don’t have the relationship to back it up, you can find a way to make that happen. You can make out with a friend! You can even have sex with a friend—just make sure that everyone knows the score and that there aren’t any ulterior motives on either person’s part. You can even have a romantic relationship with a friend—and it doesn’t have to be the same person you fooled around with!

It’s never fun to wait around for things to happen when you’re ready to go, but you don’t have to. Use this time to have fun and figure out what kinds of people you like before you even get into a deep relationship. It’s way better to walk into a relationship feeling like “Hello, I am a superstar, and you are lucky to have me, so let’s have some fun” than to put this stress on yourself to experience everything all at once. Take smaller steps toward feeling fulfilled, and enjoy being in the position to make choices about what you want above all else! —Danielle

I’ve now and then cheated on a test or assignment. Teachers and other students at my school are extremely complacent about cheating, and I have never felt morally bad about it. If no one knows, no one cares, and no one is hurt, I think it is OK to do every once in a while, especially with something like copying homework that is just busywork. But I have a close friend who believes that turning in any and all work that is not one’s own is ethically wrong. So I’m wondering: Who’s right? I don’t feel bad about cheating, but I feel bad about not feeling bad about cheating! And if all cheating is wrong, how can I possibly keep up in a school where everyone else cheats? —Jenna

Hi, Jenna. I’m a teacher at a high school that has, until recently, had a culture that sounds a lot like the one at your school. Cheating had become so commonplace that the valedictorian a couple of years ago—who was on his way to an Ivy League college—even made offhand jokes during his graduation speech about cheating. Most students at our school shared your idea that it’s pretty much a victimless crime—how does it really hurt anyone to copy homework that you wouldn’t learn anything from, anyway?

Things changed at our school when a huge cheating scandal hit the news. It turned out that dozens of students were sending and receiving phone pictures of answers during state tests. One student was expelled and our veteran principal retired abruptly in the shadow of the cheating ring. The result of all this was that, for the first time, all of the teachers and students at our school were forced to do a lot of hard thinking and talking about the actual, real-world costs of academic dishonesty.

One common way of thinking about cheating is that different kinds of offenses have different levels of seriousness. A lot of my students put copying homework on the low end of the scale, for instance, and plagiarism on the high end. But the truth is, it’s a slippery slope. Once you justify copying homework as no big deal, it’s not that much of a leap to decide that cheating on a quiz is OK too, and then a test, and then the SAT. The writer Dan Ariely, in his awesome book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, reports that this idea is scientifically supported—cheating has been proven to lead to more cheating. And while your friend argues that it’s an ethical issue, I actually think that (even if the shit doesn’t hit the fan the way it did at our school) cheating has pretty negative real-life effects that aren’t so abstract:

  1. When you cheat all the time, school starts to feel like a pointless game, and that’s depressing and boring. Everyone is just doing whatever they have to do in order to pass a test and turn in a lab report and get into college and be done with it. Learning is reduced to empty drudgery. Think about how you feel when you’re really into a class or a book or an idea, and how awesome that is. Cheating pokes a hole in that kind of excitement.

  2. If you cheat in a class with a teacher you actually like and respect, I think you are betraying that teacher on a very personal level. I’m an English teacher, and when I find a plagiarized paper I feel as if I’m in a relationship with an unfaithful partner—it really messes with my ability to trust. I end up feeling like they’re all cheaters, and I hate that. It’s one of the only things that reduce my love for my job (and I really love my job).
  3. Even when you cheat on an assignment that you consider mindless busywork, you are indirectly perpetuating that kind of waste-of-time assignment. Instead—and I know this is really hard—you can sincerely ask your teachers what the value or purpose of an assignment is. I’d like to think that if any of my students asked me why I was requiring them to do something, I’d have a meaningful answer.
  4. You ask, “How can I possibly keep up in a school where everyone else cheats?” And you’re right: would-be honest students end up feeling that they have to cheat if they want to do as well (on paper, anyway) as their less-upstanding peers. I’ve found, to my surprise, that admissions committees have an uncanny ability to spot students who are truly passionate and engaged learners as opposed to simply high-achieving possessors of impressive GPAs. You may have a 93 average instead of a 97 (or whatever the grading scale at your school is), but if you have been a sincere and dedicated student, it has a way of showing—in your college essay, your teacher recommendations, your extracurricular activities, and any number of other small ways that create a picture of the kind of person and learner you are. I have never had an intellectually curious and honestly hardworking student meet real disappointment at college-admissions time. And if you’ve gotten through high school without cheating, you will feel like (and will be) an awesome, interesting person instead of someone who just played a numbers game.

For now, Jenna, run an experiment: Don’t cheat for some period of time (whatever feels right to you). Tell your friend about your plan. See what you think. —Katherine Fletcher, New York City high school English teacher