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Auntie SparkNotes: Cheating Tom or Mary Sue?

Auntie SparkNotes: Cheating Tom or Mary Sue?

We cheated once in high school, and we still feel guilty about it. —SparkNotes editors

Dear Auntie,
I need your help. Right now in Chemistry, we are taking a series of tests intimidatingly called "The Gauntlet"-- it actually only comes out to one test grade but ultimately helps us prep for the final. Before starting the Gauntlet, our teacher told us that the only things we are allowed to tell people about how our Gauntlet is going is our grade and the number of the obstacle (test) we're on. We aren't allowed to study with anyone who is farther ahead in the Gauntlet than we are. We went over this the day before the tests started.

However, the first day of the Gauntlet, all of the people around me were talking about the tests, knowing full well that some people had started and others had not. Some of the guys from my class asked a boy who had already taken it what kind of theories were on the test (we each got a review packet, so they were really just fishing for hints) but when I noted that he couldn't really say, the guy rephrased the question to "What kind of theories have we learned in Chemistry, anyway?" At this point another guy from my class (let's call him Tom) asked again if there would be theories on there. (It seems like a vague enough question, but the fellow he was asking has an obvious habit of "over-sharing" about tests). I turned to Tom and said directly, but nicely, that our teacher had spent like ten minutes yesterday instructing us not to talk about the obstacles at all.

Tom then got really defensive and said that Mr. Chem Teacher had told us that there would be theories on there and that he was just checking that he had heard correctly. He then continued to say that if I told our teacher and he got a zero, he would be "pissed". Which is pretty threatening coming from a guy wrestler who is a good half foot taller than me, a sophomore girl. In retrospect, I wish that I had told him off, but what he said felt like bullying and has really left me shaky and angry.

I guess my question is, what should I do? I've gone to teachers about this kind of situation before so that I could take a form of the test that I hadn't overheard people cheating on, but it wound up that I had to tell on my classmates (some of whom are friends) too. It's a really guilt- and anxiety-inducing process. I really am a nice person but don't want to be threatened like that again. Do you have any suggestions on how to respond in future? Especially if I do wind up telling on Tom?

This letter is a fascinating example of the power of perspective. Read it once, and you get the story of Tom: a vile and sneaky cheatypants who aggressively threatened an innocent bystander when she tried to stop his wrongdoing.

But read it again, from a different perspective, and you get the story of Tom: a frustrated chemistry student who strongly suggested that a cheating hysteric and known tattletale kindly butt out of an innocuous conversation about an insignificant test.

See? Same facts, different conclusions! And it's up to Auntie to figure out which one is more credible. Before I give my opinion, know that I a) have never cheated on a test and b) think that those who do are pretty pathetic.

The answer is obvious:

You, letter-writer, need to chill out and back off.


I get it: you don't like cheaters. That's cool. Neither do I! But while there are times when cheating may require you to inform a teacher, a group of kids having an abstract conversation about an unimportant test primarily aimed at helping you review for the final is not one of them. And even if Tom was "bullying" you by announcing that he'd be pissed if your tattling cost him a grade, and even if you correctly assumed that his vague question about the test was actually an attempt to cheat, your letter still describes a situation that is, unequivocally, a giant flaming pile of None of Your Business.

And add to that the fact that a) the conversation had barely scratched the surface of against-the-rules, and b) you—by your own admission—have a history of ratting out your classmates, Tom's reaction sounds less like a threat and more like a remark made out of understandable frustration.

The truth is, it's not up to you to police your classmates' behavior—and not every incident of rule-bending warrants a beeline for authorities. That should be saved exclusively for instances in which something truly harmful is going on, keeping you on the right side of the line between Ethical Telling and Unnecessary Tattling. Or to put it another way: if your friend robs a bank, you say something; if he steals a cookie, you roll your eyes and refrain from calling the cops. People are always going to do things they're not supposed to, from sharing inside info on chemistry tests to fudging their resumes to crossing the street against a "Don't Walk" sign. Sure, it's "against the rules"—but it's relatively harmless, and unless you relish the idea of winning "Class Narc" in your senior superlatives, it's not your place to tell on your sinning classmates.

Which leads us to this: Should you tell on Tom? Well... really, why bother? All you gain is the mistrust of your classmates (and all you lose is an opportunity to see Tom ace the Gauntlet but shoot himself in the foot by not adequately reviewing for the final.). And in the future, consider staying out of situations like this unless there's actual harm being done. If a group of kids are gaming the system and ruining the grading curve by toting equation-solving iPhones into your final, then by all means, say something. But when the "cheating" takes the form of a hey-what-theories-should-we-study conversation about a plain old test (and when you're backing up your objections with the claim that, even if nothing has happened yet, you know what your classmates are thinking), you're best served by simply walking away.

Preserve your own integrity, and let karma—and your teacher—handle the rest.

Something to add? Comment away! And to get in touch with Auntie, email her at or friend her on Facebook.

Topics: Advice
Tags: auntie sparknotes, finals, studying, tests, cheating, tattling, tattletales

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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