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It was 7:45 a.m, geometry, second hour, dark outside, and I was facing the biggest ethical dilemma of my freshman year.
Ninth grade…what can I say. It’s vital to the adolescent psyche, and yet we all want to forget it as soon as it’s over. I wanted to fit in, but be unique. I wanted to avoid the Garbage Can at all costs. I wanted to survive. And here, sitting on my right, was my chance at survival. Scottie and Brad were older, smarter, cooler sophomores who needed a freshman’s aid in geometry. Unfortunately for me, this assistance was required in the middle of the unit test. I remember I was working on an algebraic proof when I felt a nudge on my elbow. Brad passed me his sleek iPhone. For a moment I just stared at him, unsure what he was asking. Then he whispered,
“Take a picture.”
And it began. In the span of seven seconds, I weighed the pros and cons. Or, more accurately, I tried to calculate the chances of my getting caught versus the benefits of possibly getting into this friend group. I looked at Scottie- that tall, tan, dark haired kid, peering around Brad with not the faintest clue on the planet, a small smirk pasted on his face.
And I snapped a photo of my work. And I passed it to Brad, who was back for more within one minute. I took three more for them. I finished my test and passed it in; oddly, I couldn’t make eye contact with Mrs. Hartley. There was something pulling viciously at the base of my heart, making it hard to breathe. I had a dull pang in my core.
Somebody out there is reading this right now and thinking I exaggerate the physiological symptoms I had. All I can say is this: when one makes eye contact with a parent (the “scarier” parent) right after committing a childhood crime, one feels that awful
because the parent is telepathically berating the child.
Think back to that feeling. Got it? That’s how I felt after that test. Rock bottom had been hit. Houston, we had a big, BIG problem.
But it hadn’t been stretched to the max yet. Nope. There was more torture to come. At 9:02 the bell rang and I gathered my binders and I walked out from behind my desk and I made one step towards the door before she uttered my name. I turned, hands trembling. Without looking up from her desk, Mrs. Hartley motioned me to her desk. I approached with the distinct feeling I was rolling a giant rock in front of my tomb.
“Do you have something you want to share with me?” Without waiting for a reply, she held up mine, Scottie’s and Brad’s papers. “The exact same errors, on the exact same problem. I can see Scottie and Brad doing something like this, but you? You know I can call the office right now and report you for academic dishonesty.” I felt tears at the corners of my eyes and was horrified. I was already in trouble, and I was going to cry on top of it? I held them back with a barbed wire swallow. There was a pause that lasted approximately one third of an eternity. Then she sighed. “I’ll let it go just this once. If it happens again, your parents will find out. I will talk to Scottie and Brad about this separately.” There was a resigned look in her eyes that killed me. I had gotten off, and I could feel that slide off me, but…I was no longer in that category, that trust category, that golden kid territory. She didn’t trust me, and had, I believed, written me off. So I thanked her and went to my next class.
A few nights later, I was standing next to my dad, surveying the insulation work we’d done that day. He was tapping in a few screws that weren’t flush with the studs. The bedrooms were being redone, and it was a project that took time and effort. I wasn’t feeling the triumph. As I stood there, I went through the other feeling that is familiar to anyone who’s ever been a kid. To tell or not to tell? That was the question. This time, I made the right decision. I told my dad about that morning. He didn’t say anything at first, just held his hammer. I wondered if he was considering using it on my head. Then he said, “Why’d you help them?”
Well, there was a core answer to that and there was surface answer. I went with the surface answer first. Just testing the waters.
“I…felt bad for them, I guess, I don’t know, they seemed so lost and it was like…” (insert unintelligible mumbling).
I received that sardonic eye roll/glare which New York natives are gifted with. Dad was not impressed.
“Why’d you help them? It wasn’t because you felt bad for them, you know that. You’re a freshman and they’re sophomores. And they’re ‘cool’.”
“I kinda…wanted them to like me, I guess. I wanted them to talk to me, so I’m not- alone.”
There was the core answer. I wanted to fit in, to be like the kids everybody else emulated. This particular sentiment isn’t just felt by freshmen…it continues. Everyone wants to blend, to be accepted.
After that test and after I talked to my dad and after I finished geometry with an A and as I write this essay, I understand this urge. I also understand the effect it has on people in general, and on me. Why is it that we feel the need to follow the pack, be a white sheep, blur the lines that make us individuals? It’s simply human nature. We’re like wolves, mustangs, chickadees: social creatures. Zebras, when being stalked, shuffle together and turn their hides into a living mirage of black and white until the lioness can no longer distinguish one to attack. I think people are the same way; I think we band together because we are afraid to be picked out and hurt. It’s not a bad trait- the only problem is that it can translate into our daily lives and the choices we make. So what makes a black sheep? After that experience, I started to form what would become my high school persona, what has carried me through stress and pressure. Who am I? I’m the kid at the back of the classroom who speaks to the teacher with respect. I’m the one who takes AP classes and doesn’t flaunt it, the one who tries to keep her mouth shut so she doesn’t eat her words later. When I do say something, it’s been mulled over for a few minutes. When I hear someone express a thought, I consider it from every angle and never denounce it. Slow to anger and quick to forgive, I make friends quickly, yet I don’t actively seek them. I’m not there until I speak or am spoken to. This is who I am, and I’m comfortable in it, for now. I may be outspoken in a few years. I may be loud and energetic. I’m open to change in myself, and I believe that is one of the keys to being unique; I will never try to fit into something I’m not. Experiences like the Failed Morality Test of Ninth Grade will shape me. I am quiet, intelligent, strong as all hell and tough as nails. I learn from my mistakes. And…I never