by Kellen Squire
Ten years ago, I was struggling.
To be fair, I had brought it on myself. By some miracle, I’d been offered an incomparable opportunity to attend the University of Virginia School of Nursing. But to make it work, I had to drop everything- quit my job, pick up stakes, and move with my then-nine month old daughter to Charlottesville to pursue a new career.
I knew it’d be tough; full-time school, work, and raising a toddler. But the magnitude of it was staggering.
My grades were suffering, and I was sacrificing time with my daughter I knew I’d never get back. One evening, when I was studying for a pathophysiology test, my little girl toddled up to me and started tugging at my hand, begging me to play with her. “Play with me, daddy! Play with me!”
“I can’t, baby,” I told her. “I will later, I promise though, okay?” I knew how important it was to study; if I didn’t keep my grades up, I’d lose all my scholarships, and then we’d really be SOL.
Any parent reading this, though, will understand why the disappointed look on her face is burned into my memory, and will remain there until the day I die.
I kept at it, though. At the beginning of the next semester, the nursing school let us know that all of our tests and quizzes in class would be done on a computer program we were required to download; it was intended to mimic the format of the computerized NCLEX test all nurses are required to take as a prerequisite to getting their nursing license, so we would be ready for the bizarre format the questions took, and be able to choose the “most correct” answer out of four identical choices.
Late one night, I was doing a practice test on my computer at home. My daughter had had a night terror earlier, requiring me to soothe her for an hour before I had gotten her back to sleep. I had just gotten my third stupid question in a row wrong (“Is the answer: sultry, parching, torrid, or stifling? BZZT! Actually, the answer was actually balmy, stupid!”), and I was sick of everything. I hit my computer keyboard in frustration, and rubbed my forehead.
When I looked back up, I glanced at my computer screen- and then did a double take in surprise.
The software program we used for testing had a lockout on it, which restricted access to any other programs until you were finished with your test. This kept someone from Googling the answer to a particularly hard question, accessing files on your computer, or being able to copy/paste any questions, which came from a docket of actual NCLEX questions.
Or, at least, it was supposed to. In my frustration, whatever keys I had hit had short-circuited something… because sitting on my desktop was the notepad document full of class notes I had previously had keyed up as a study guide.
But the testing program was still open and running; the Windows toolbar was still inaccessible because of it. I made a tentative click on the screen with the mouse, and my notes disappeared as the testing program immediately popped fully open.
Frantically, I tried to figure out what I had done to trigger my notes to pop up. It was some sort of hotkey combination, but I couldn’t figure out what. Twenty minutes later (after a few hundred combinations of keystrokes and resetting my computer twice), I hit a combination of keys, and bam! My notes, again- fully accessible and readable, while the testing program remained active in the background.
I played with this for a few minutes; I noticed that, with any more than one program up on the desktop at a time, the hotkey strike wouldn’t necessarily flip to my notes. I also noticed that I couldn’t scroll the notepad, so only the words currently on the screen when the testing program started were able to be accessed.
It looked like I had discovered a fool-proof way to ace the rest of my classes, the minor caveat being that it was, uhm, well… cheating.
I considered the implications of this for a minute, pacing around my apartment nervously. The University of Virginia had an incredibly strict cheating policy; we all signed honor pledges at the beginning of each and every test and quiz (“On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment”), a ritual started by Thomas Jefferson in the early days of the University some almost two hundred years before. Anyone caught cheating would be subject to an Honor Trial, where a randomly selected student panel would decide whether or not to expel them from the University.
On the other hand… I could ace all my classes. I could qualify for more robust scholarships with better grades, saving tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I could spend more time working and less time studying. And I could spend more time with my little girl, who was, even then, already growing up so damn fast.
I could play with her.
Laugh with her.
Give her all the attention she wanted.
To emphasize that point, I found myself at her door. I looked in at my daughter. As usual, after being soothed and laid down earlier, she had subsequently flipped around and contorted into a position an octopus would’ve a hard time replicating, covers and pillows askew in every direction. I smiled involuntarily- and then stopped.
What, I wondered, would I tell her to do, if she came to me with the same conundrum? What choice would I want her to make, were she in my shoes?
By the time I managed to get to bed, I hadn’t been able to square all those circles. I was still deeply conflicted on exactly what to do. But I knew I would have to make a decision soon. I had a big mid-term test coming up for a class my grades were flagging in; if I was going to do this thing, I needed to start now, to bring my grades up before another round of student financial aid began processing.
After hemming and hawwing, I decided- fuck it. I was going to go for it. So I spent two hours crafting my study guide to fit onto a notepad document, in text just barely big enough to read so I didn’t have to scroll on the document, and tested it at home from the software program. It worked perfectly; I could flip back and forth from the test to the notes at whim, so if a question came up I didn’t know about, I could easily find the answer. There was no reason for me to get anything less than a hundred percent on this next test, which would bump my average up a full letter grade. Things were looking up.
The day of the test came. I picked a seat in the back of the room, as far into the corner as I could, where the test monitors would rarely roam. I loaded my laptop up. I made sure that my notes were loaded and ready to go. And when the time came to start the test, I opened the testing software and began clicking through questions. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until I got to a question where I wasn’t sure which one of the four correct answers was the most correct. And while I was pretty sure I knew the answer, I knew for a fact it was in my notes.
My fingers hovered over the hotkeys. I had this test in the bag.
Here we go!
My hand refused to budge.
No matter how hard I stared at it, my hand refused to budge. I willed it to press the hotkey and flip into the notes- but it refused.
I sat there, silently wrestling with myself, and it was only being startled by the first of my classmates to finish the test- slamming her laptop shut and stalking out of the room, apparently frustrated at how hard the test was- that I stopped.
I don’t really need to do this for this test, I convinced myself, weakly. Maybe the next one. I withdrew my hand and sighed, clicking through the test as I would normally, but feeling better and better as I went on. I didn’t need to cheat; heck, I had this stuff down. Sheesh, what a dirtbag thing to do. Good thing I had come to my senses before it was too late. I clicked “SUBMIT” on the test, feeling pretty smug about my moral superiority and subject knowledge. Why I had spent so long agonizing ove-
The testing program spit my score back out at me.
I had bombed the test.
My eye twitched involuntarily as my brain willed myself to have an aneurysm, right then and there.
Immediately, my attitude flipped. What a moron I was- moral superiority? Fuck that! I should have cheated the SHIT out of this stupid test! The next test, I wouldn’t hesitate, even for a second.
So before the next test, I spent even more time, crafting an even more elaborate and detailed study guide for that class. I had it down. I’d get it this time.
Except I didn’t. Once again, I hesitated. Once again, I sighed and clicked through the test without flipping over to my notes. And this time, while I got a much better grade than on the previous test, it was still far from perfect- and I knew that I could have gotten 100% on that test had I just gotten it over with and flipped into my notes.
This process repeated itself a dozen more times… but then my time at UVA was over, and I graduated having never cheated; having never broken the Honor Code. I worked hard. I sacrificed time with my little girl. I wore myself out with 80-hour weeks of work and school. And ended my collegiate career with a 3.14 GPA- maybe not that impressive, but it was one that I earned. Which I felt pretty good about it…
… until a few years later, when I got an interview at my dream school in their nurse practitioner program. I enrolled in a master’s level pathophysiology class, the hardest class in the program, to prove I had the chops to hack the whole program- and I got a 4.0 GPA. With my experience as an ER Nurse, I aced the interview. All of my hard work was finally paying off!
My letter came! I opened, excited and already planning my future as a nurse practitioners… when I found out that, while application had been exceptional, this school had a very competitive applicant pool- and, commensurately, the minimum undergradute GPA they would consider for acceptance was 3.15.
That’s not a joke or exaggeration.
Five years later, I can look back at that with a lot more serenity than I had at the time. I can still be glad my honor and honestly held; that I made the choices I would want my kids to make. But then again, five years hence, that situation only brings more questions than answers.
Because in the age of Donald Trump, it’s clear that I made the wrong choice- by a long shot.
I dare anyone to tell me that, presented with the same situation, Donald Trump wouldn’t have cheated in an instant. That he would have expected his kids to do the same, and would have laughed at them for being a chump if they did otherwise. Similarly, I dare anyone to tell me that, if Donald Trump read this story, he wouldn’t laugh and deride me for being a loser for even hesitating to cheat when given the opportunity to do so- especially given the results.
But that’s a toothless challenge, because nobody will bother to suggest otherwise, though. Even his strongest supporters would agree- hell, it’s the reason a lot of them voted for him. Because they think that they can separate Donald Trump’s immoral character from their decision to support him implicitly.
But they can’t.
A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for a political system where honesty- already in short supply- is an outright liability. That cruelty and spite are values to be cherished, not diminished. That situational ethics and moral relativism in the pursuit of winning at all costs are your priorities. That you don’t mind corporate socialism on an unheard of scale. That you don’t have a problem with a guy whose own opposition research firm said paid mistresses to have abortions. Who laughed at the concept of original sin and forgiveness, laughing he had no need to ask for any because he was perfect, and never done anything wrong.
I have people I know and love who support Donald Trump; who voted for him. Donated to him. And will do so again this year. I haven’t ever told them the story above, but if I did, I know they would tell me that I did the right thing. That they’re proud of me, and I should never think twice about the decisions I made. And, yet… they’ll vote for him this fall.
I say that so you can understand exactly how hard this is for me to say:
Vote for Donald Trump if you must- but just be honest about what you have become. Because you cannot extricate any of who Donald Trump is from your support of him… any more than you can extricate it from who you’ve become.