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Confessions of a Cheater

I wasn't very good at it, but I tried.

By Rea Killeen Cassidy

When I was in second grade, I cheated. I didn't cheat on my work—that, I flunked honestly.

What I didn't do honestly was talk to my parents.

Instead, I forged my mother's signature. Twice.

The first time, I parked myself on the braided rug in my living room and studied the roundness of her letters: the sturdy "N" in her "Nancy," the chubby "a" and the wide "y." I must have spent an hour practicing my "N" and "a" before I finally put my pen to the line and began a swirling and energetic imitation.

Two days later, my mother and the teacher talked with me about "honesty" and "responsibility." After apologizing, I was sent out into the hall, where I listened to whispered exchanges and imagined places that would accommodate a dishonest and irresponsible fugitive.

Rea Killeen Cassidy cheated because she thought grownups were perfect. Today, she often proves they're not.

The second time, I smartened up. With scissors, I neatly (or as neatly as a second-grader could manage) cut out my mother's actual signature from a previously signed paper.

I took my sticky bottle of Elmer's rubber glue and pasted the strip of paper on the line above "Parent's Signature." There, I thought. That ought to do it.

"What were you thinking, young lady?" my mother asked, exasperated. "Why in the world would you do this? Again!"

"I dunno," I replied. And I didn't.

Were my parents putting subtle pressure on me to succeed? Not likely. Our family had five kids, two dogs, dependent elderly relatives, and chronic illnesses, all of which kept my parents occupied.

No, for whatever reason, I was putting the pressure on myself.

The cheating story returns to me every now and then when I look at the 110 beautiful faces of the students I teach. I see kids who are eager to please, willing to shoulder their heavy backpacks brimming with books and hours of homework. While these students are all honest, hardworking kids, I cannot help but worry that they will create their own self-pressure cookers.

A few years ago, I polled my students about their number one fear. Their answer: failure. With the rigorous demands of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework and the formidable competition for college admissions, kids today experience more pressure than anything we endured.

It's no wonder some kids sneak peeks at each other's quizzes and plagiarize paragraphs from other students' essays. And it's no wonder that many parents, myself included, struggle with the distinction be-tween helping our kids understand their work and doing it for them.

I look at my children and my students and I want to tell them, "Relax. You're going to be just fine." And I have found one sure way adults can help kids relax: let them see you make mistakes. When I was in second grade, my parents seemed perfect. I had never seen them fail at anything and to let them see me fail was, well, unbearable.

Luckily, these days I make a lot of mistakes. At school, I type the wrong date at the top of quizzes, copy the wrong vocabulary lists, correct students without knowing the whole story. At home, I can be cranky, spacey, and downright demanding.

"Oops," I say. "I'm having a day. I'm sorry kids." And then, when my kids are having tough days, I remind them of my own. "Don't you remember when I...."

If we want honest kids, we have to be honest adults. We have to let them see us succeed and fail.

It may help to remember our own relationship with our parents. As young children, we loved our parents, whom we thought of as perfect. But as adults, most of us love our parents even more, not because they are perfect, but because they are imperfect, human, just like us.

Rea Killeen Cassidy teaches seventh-grade English in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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