Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

M. Regina Cram

My first big failure with honesty occurred at the ripe age of 7. A friend dared me to steal a pack of Sweet Tart candies from the local convenience store using a fake nickel. To avoid being banned from her jump rope game at recess, I did it.

A vague sense of guilt gnawed at my insides for months thereafter. Deep down, I worried whether little kids could be arrested and thrown into jail. Years later, when the store went out of business, I was convinced it was my fault.

Cheating. Lying. Stealing. They’re all facets of dishonesty. So here’s my question: is honesty all it’s cracked up to be? Is cheating really that bad? Sometimes nice guys really do finish last, so does it pay to be honest?

I’ve posed this question to family and friends, and the consistent response is that it does not pay to be honest – at least not in the short term. But, they insist, do it anyway. Don’t use company time for personal work. Don’t speed up at a yellow light, or snitch office supplies, or pad your time sheet. Don’t get paid under the table. Even pornography is a form of cheating against one’s spouse. In each case, it’s not worth selling your integrity for the cost of a few seconds or a few dollars or a few thrills.

When I was 15, I was often tempted to cheat in geometry class. It didn’t help that my teacher had the personality of a bowl of oatmeal. He stepped out of the classroom during tests, providing ample opportunity for answers to fly across the room. One day, I succumbed to the temptation, snatching answers to several difficult problems. I aced the test.

After several sleepless nights, I knew I had to ’fess up, so I mustered the courage to speak with Mr. Oatmeal after class. I was shy and embarrassed but I managed to explain what I’d done.

He never said a word. He took out his marking book, crossed out “93,” wrote “63” in its place, closed the book and returned to his work.

That was it. No acknowledgment that it took guts to come clean. Not even a rebuke for having cheated in the first place. Just a silent cross-out.

I was mortified. As I walked out of that classroom, I thought, “Man, I’ll never do that again!”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the cheating that I swore to avoid; it was the humiliation of admitting to it. If anything, the geometry teacher made cheating seem like a better option.

That’s often the case. In a recent workplace incident, an employee’s time card was altered to avoid paying overtime. In another incident, a neighbor’s son cracked up the family car, and friends urged the parents to lie by telling the insurance company that they’d been driving, so as to minimize insurance risk. Dishonesty is just so easy. But it’s wrong, and God sees the truth even when the insurance adjuster does not.

I learned a great lesson about honesty late in my senior year in high school. I had just taken my final exam in chemistry, and I needed an A to make high honors that year. I knew the material, had studied hard, and scored a 95 on the exam. I was ecstatic.

Until the next day. As the teacher reviewed the test in class, I realized in dismay that one of my answers was wrong, but had been marked correct. I’d done the calculation properly but had transposed the digits when I wrote the answer.

Surely that could justify keeping the 10 points, couldn’t it? Besides, it was the teacher’s mistake; why should I pay the penalty?

I agonized as students swarmed his desk to argue for points. After what seemed an eternity, I sheepishly approached him.

“This is going to kill me,” I mumbled, “but you gave me 10 points too many.”

“Excuse me?” he said in sur-prise.

“You gave me 10 extra points,” I repeated. “You missed a wrong answer.”

Mr. Chemistry gazed at me for a long time. I could see the cogs in his brain turning, looking for a way to maintain the integrity of the marking system while rein-forcing a kid’s gritty honesty.
He slowly picked up his red pen, marked a dramatic X on the incorrect answer and said somberly, “I’ll have to take 10 points off.” Then he circled a funny doodle at the bottom of the page and added quietly, “But I’ll give you 10 points for artwork.”

That day, Mr. Chemistry reminded me that it’s cool to be honest, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Even after all these years, I still add a doodle at the bottom of all my work. You never know when it might come in handy.

Regina Cram  is a freelance writer.