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  • Marilyn Saltzman

Choosing honesty

In my writing group, we pick a monthly prompt and write about the topic for 10 minutes. This month the topic was “Life Lessons from Junior High.” Here’s the memory I wrote:

Scrunched over my desk, I focused on the mimeographed map of Europe in front of me. Italy was easy, the boot. Confidently, I filled in the blank with the country name. Rapidly I filled in Portugal, Spain and then France above it. I hesitated and stared down at the test as I struggled to remember where Austria was in relation to Poland. Hungary next to Germany?

“Pencils down.” Mr. K ‘s commanding voice broke my concentration.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I glanced at my paper. All the blanks were filled in. Switzerland, Belgium, tiny Monaco. I thought I got them all in their proper places.

“Trade papers with your neighbor. We’re going to grade the tests together.”

I pushed my map toward Michael as he handed me his test with a wink and a confident smile.

Mr. K put a large version of the map on the blackboard, and students marched up one-by-one to fill in the country names. Spain – check! Portugal – check! Hungary – oops, I had reversed it with Poland. Michael confirmed my error with a bright red X.

Grading completed. I got an 85 percent, and disappointment overtook me. How would I explain anything less than 100 to my father, especially when every other student got a perfect score?

The passing bell rang. I heard Frank whisper to Mary, Mr. K’s student assistant. “What’s wrong with Marilyn, couldn’t she read the cheat sheet?”

“She wouldn’t take one,” Mary whispered back.

Frank glanced over at me in surprise. It was only then that it dawned on me. I was the only ninth grader in the entire class who had refused the stolen answer sheet that Mary had provided to my classmates.

Suddenly I was proud of my 85 percent. I had come upon it honestly.

Reflecting on this junior high memory after writing it down, I wondered why I hadn’t taken the stolen answers as the rest of my classmates had. Was I scared Mr. K would find out, and I would be get a zero? Did I worry that my parents would learn about it and punish me? Was I fearful of the judgment of the omnipotent, punitive God I believed in at the time?

One thing I know for sure, I didn’t refuse the crib sheet for the sake of my place in the junior high hierarchy. In fact, I didn’t want my classmates to know that I was the sole exception to the cheating. I already had a reputation as a “goody two-shoes,” and this incident did nothing to enhance my popularity.

In all honesty, I really can’t say why I followed the honest path all those decades ago. Yet today, as a student of Mussar (Jewish ethics), I still feel good about the behavior even if I can’t be certain of the motive. After all, the map of Europe has altered over the years, but the true north of integrity has never wavered.

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