Growing up, constrictions around my gender, my sexuality, abuse I was dealing with, and my self-expression felt tight. I looked for any way to act out that I could. In late high school, having made the very privileged decision to go to art school, and perceiving a low amount of risk to my very privileged white person, I became obsessed with getting away with stuff, especially cheating on reading assignments and skipping class.
Cheating and skipping were my escape valve. After roll call in gym class, I would dip out through the locker rooms, and back out into the main halls. I changed back out of gym shorts in the bathroom. My high school had been designed by what we assumed were 1970s hippie architects, with big open spaces, and cubicle-style partitions sectioning out classrooms instead of walls. The architecture made it absurdly easy to skip class, as opposed to the neighboring school, which we thought looked like a prison. Skipping gym came as a great relief. I wanted to live outside my body. I went to the art room instead.
Cheating, as I understood it, involved getting through school work or the day in ways not laid out as options. My favorite method of cheating involved skipping reading the book in English class, listening to the discussions, and then bullshitting my way through the essay test; I got through Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening this way (a book I now really wish I had read). “You need ideas to bullshit,” a friend told me recently as we talked about our cheating histories. So much of my high school experience revolved around rules and restrictions that made no sense to me; coming from a home where I lacked positive models for authority, I chafed at most adults’ ideas of what I should do. That same friend told me they cheated by writing things on a li’l piece of paper and taping it to the bathroom trash can. We both agreed that we sometimes took way more pride and put more work into doing things the “wrong” way. This helped confirm an idea for me: some students, including me, put vast amounts of ingenuity, grit, and work toward cheating.
Before we go further, I must make an Official Announcement, or as official as it gets from a freelance professional transsexual writer. (I add the word “transsexual” because it’s so dated that it makes me laugh.) The reason is, the consequences can be high, especially for plagiarism, or on standardized tests like the SATs. Different teachers and schools have different policies, and I honestly do not want to see you get in trouble. I don’t think the cheating I did was necessarily a good idea—at 29, I regretted reading Great Expectations so late in life because I loved it and am making a comic about it—I just think there’s a lot to break down and parse regarding cheating and why different people do it. In a system that overvalues strict attention to facts and figures, cheating at times exercises different kinds of intelligence, including thinking critically under pressure.
The videogame maker and games critic Jane McGonigal talks about the value of games and the cultural bias against the idea of “gaming the system.” She writes in her book Reality Is Broken that “Game developers know better than anyone how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work.” I realize now that when I got into the zone of cheating or skipping, I turned the event into a game that I played with myself. While taking one vocabulary test, I realized that one of the answers were printed on the cover of the book. During one “field day,” my high school bestie Jesse and I delighted in walking through the school hallways to dip out and play Playstation 2 at his house. At a time when I felt out of control in my own life, when just one way of doing things was provided, I felt a sense of agency and (perhaps misplaced) rebellion in laziness.
I realize now that the teachers I cheated most with saw me as a gifted student who didn’t need a lot of attention, and thus allowed me to coast. A lot of times, I didn’t feel challenged. In some ways, I think some of my teachers could have coaxed that effort out of me into “legitimate” classwork. At the same time, I respect the unbelievable difficulty of teaching, having taught in some capacities over the years. It was what it was: I went through my youth without anyone realizing anything was wrong, when actually I was constantly being traumatized and I was extremely depressed. I believe these are extremely common problems.
The overwhelming emotion that comes to me now is empathy for my younger dirtbag self, who flailed her way through an untenable living situation and issues with gender and queerness that she didn’t understand. Now, my life as a freelancer resembles endless college to me more than anything; I have assignments, and deadlines, and if I get done early I can screw around and play ukulele and Nintendo. My lack of a day job feels like I’m “cheating” by avoiding the prescribed way of making a living. I try not to have it any other way. ♦