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From: Melissa in Milwaukee

Dear Rabbi,

I am very upset about something. I recently took a final exam that I really studied hard for. During the test, a friend of mine kept looking over my shoulder to see what I wrote. I really didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, I didn’t want to be involved in cheating, but she is my friend and I didn’t want to offend her. Anyway, it was not me who was cheating, she was looking over my shoulder – so any blame would be put on her. But still, the dilemma distracted me from my own answers and I feel that my performance on the test was affected by her since I got a “C” which is less than I’m used to, and not on par with my preparation. What should I have done? If I told her to stop, she’d be hurt and I probably wouldn’t have been able to concentrate anyway. If I had asked to change my place, the teacher would certainly have suspected something, my friend might be caught, she’d certainly be offended by me, and I still probably wouldn’t have been able to concentrate.

Dear Melissa,

You were undoubtedly put in a very difficult situation and it seems that whatever you could have done at the time simply would not have been ideal.

You are absolutely right about not wanting to contribute to your friend’s cheating. Regardless of why she needed help, even for justifiable reasons, you cannot “help” her by letting her cheat. If she was able to properly prepare but chose not to, she has to bear the responsibility and you are not responsible, nor should you be distracted. And even if she wasn’t able to prepare because of some extenuating circumstances, that must be worked out between her and the teacher before the test, not by looking over your shoulder during the test.

Regarding not wanting to hurt her, either emotionally or grade-wise, while sweet and sensitive of you, that was not the right approach. The reason is clear. You worked hard because it was important to you. But as result of her cheating, you were no less hurt emotionally or grade-wise than you were concerned she would be. So you see, you responsibly prepared properly, but ended up being harmed yourself by getting upset and by getting a lower grade. If one of you were to be so affected, it should have been her and not you.

Anyway, if her copying resulted in similar answers to yours, you’re lucky you weren’t accused of cheating (although you may have been suspected). Because if you had been accused, we both know that saying, “I didn’t know” wouldn’t have passed since you really did know; it would have been a lie, and the teacher wouldn’t accept that as an excuse even if it was true. So it’s not like any blame would have been put only on her.

Given the scenario you describe, if there was no way to move places, I think you should have continued the exam in a normal posture, without moving to help or block her and gradually forget about her all together so that you could do your best without being distracted. In such a case, if you were later suspected of cheating, you would have to admit that you thought she might be looking over your shoulder but that there was no way you could “tell on her”, nor could you move, so you just tried to do your best by ignoring her. I don’t think you’d be penalized in that scenario.

If you could have moved with some excuse based on light, smell, sound or some other distraction, that would probably have been even better since you wouldn’t have been involved in cheating at all. As long as this wouldn’t cast suspicion on your friend, even if it hurt her feelings, you would be justified in moving since you should not compromise your ideals for her feelings. Anyway, she put you in an uncomfortable situation in the first place. And even if she would be suspected, you still should have moved if able since the ramifications for her probably wouldn’t be so severe. Once having moved, while you might initially be flustered, eventually you would be able to concentrate even more than staying and ignoring her.

Another possibility would have been to tell her straight out, either verbally (that might have caused problems), or by writing on a piece of paper on your desk in order for her to see as she “overlooked” you, “You’re really disturbing me and if I won’t be able to concentrate I’ll have to move.” This way she would have been warned; if she continued she accepted the possibility of your moving, and if the note was seen it could have been explained off somehow. Of course, it’s not our point to discuss what could/should have been per se, but rather how to view and deal with these situations in the future. And in that vein, a most important aspect of all this is to speak with your friend about it directly to prevent it from happening again.

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