Paul Batura: The test I tried to cheat on – and I still don’t regret it

High school memories tend to blend together for me, but no day remains more vivid and set apart than 30 years ago this past Thursday – June 20, 1989.

Let me set the scene.

It’s early in the morning, not yet 7 a.m., and as a high school junior, I am running barefoot down a suburban tree-lined street in Baldwin, a town on the south shore of Long Island.

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The air is humid, and the temperature is rising – it’s going to be a hot one. Sweat pours from my forehead – but it’s not just the warm weather that’s causing me to perspire.

Just minutes before, while shaving after a shower, I had received a tip. It came from my mom, of all people. When I heard it, I almost couldn’t believe it.

She told me the answer key to a test I was scheduled to take later that day was for sale just down the street. But it wasn’t for just any test – it was the answer key for the New York State Chemistry Regents Final Examination. Every high school junior in the Empire State would be taking that exact same test at 1 p.m.

I had struggled with chemistry all year. Science was never my strong suit, but the Periodic Table of Elements may well have been in a foreign language. Decades later, I find the subject fascinating. Yet back then, science and chemistry vexed me.

Going into the final exam on that Tuesday, I had squeaked out an 80 average for the class, but only thanks to extra credit projects and a generous teacher. If I failed the chemistry exam later that day (and based on practice tests, it was a strong possibility), I’d have to go to summer school.

Yet, according to my mother, for just 50 cents, all the answers to the dreaded test could be mine!

I’m sure some of you are disgusted to know that I entertained the transaction – and that my mom even told me how to do it. A nobler man wouldn’t have fallen prey.

But I wasn’t noble. I was 17 – and I was desperate.

So, with two quarters in hand, I didn’t even bother to put on my shoes. I took off for the closest rendezvous point where the answer key was being sold – the Baldwin Coach Diner, which was located at the corner of Sunrise Highway and Central Avenue just across from the Long Island Railroad station.

I ran as fast as I could, afraid the answer keys would be gone by the time I arrived.

I had always enjoyed studying for final exams, quickly finding a comfortable routine and rhythm. The neat and tidy conclusion to months of classroom instruction was welcome closure – especially when the final grade was to my liking.

But I found myself unusually unsettled while studying the previous night. I was working at my part-time evening job at our church. All through high school, I served as a receptionist at the parish’s rectory – the home where the priests of St. Christopher’s lived. It was a terrific assignment because in between answering phone calls, writing Mass cards or fielding visitors, I could sit and study and do my homework.

My math final exam was scheduled for the morning of the next day, so I found myself trying to study for both tests. It just wasn’t working. I felt scattered and unfocused. It occurred to me failing both tests were a possibility. I had to concentrate on one. I chose math.

Setting aside my chemistry books, I knew I was going to need a miracle to pass the exam. Running down Central Avenue the next morning with the answer key in my hand, I couldn’t help but wonder if my wildest dream had somehow come true.

Okay, confession time. My pursuit of the answer key was not as sketchy or dishonest as it sounds on the surface.

Yet everything you just read is true – but I was only able to purchase the answer key for 50 cents because The New York Post had printed it on the front page of that morning’s paper.

Why?

The editors had learned of a widespread cheating scandal. Exams and answer keys had been stolen – and sold for top dollar. Out of concern for the integrity of the examination and a general sense of fairness, The New York Post broke the story in order to undermine the thievery.

“EASY AS PI” read the headline – an instant classic for a paper known for its clever, colorful, punchy and sometimes comedic front-page leads.

Later that morning while taking my math examination in the giant gymnasium of Baldwin High School, a teacher walked to a microphone at the front of the room. He tapped it, bouncing an ear-piercing squeal off the padded blue walls. The rumbling of the tall fans pushing the warm summer air hummed steadily in the background.

The teacher read a statement from the New York State Regents board. Due to the New York Post publishing the answering key, the final exam had been canceled and everyone would receive whatever grade they had prior to the scheduled final. Those who wished to improve their grade – or had to improve it – were invited to take the make-up test in August.

A deafening roar went up in the crowded gym. I enthusiastically joined in the cheering and practically floated on air out of the school that morning. Summer had begun.

Looking back three decades later, I’m reminded that life sometimes goes that way. You wait and you worry – and then what you worry about sometimes never happens.  A lot of things can wrong in life, lots of frustrations seem to follow us, but sometimes you get a break that you don’t deserve – and when you do, you should simply enjoy it and give thanks.

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The golfer Gary Player once famously observed, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." There's wisdom in that wryness, but I'm also convinced good fortune sometimes just finds us.

In fact, since we're talking chemistry, I might say there's no formula for it – but I was reminded 30 years ago that luck is a critical element in life.

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