My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Categorical Imperative

The girl, her name was Angela, turned to me, grinning. Her teeth had small black and grey circles of rot at the edges. A swath of black hair covered her right eye. The left, large and green, with a tiny knob of white mucus at the inner corner, glimmered at me. Her elbow brushed mine. I started. I looked back down at the sheet of paper in front of me, stared at the second essay question on the history exam. I knew the answer. I'd written half of it down already. But I couldn't go on. That green eye was pinned on me, entreating.

Angela was my classmate from fourth to sixth grade. She skipped more school days than she attended. When she came to school her uniform smelled musty; the pockets on the blue apron were coming undone at the seams. Her hair was flecked with tiny balls of lint. And her homework was always badly done. She passed from one grade to another, barely, because teachers in Communist Romania were reprimanded if students failed their classes, so they didn't let any but the most incorrigible fail. Angela wasn't one of the bad ones. She smiled a lot. She waited cheerfully to be picked for games during recess. She struggled with her homework, though that was a battle she lost most of the time.

She did nothing more than smile at me during that history exam. She didn't give me any secret signals to help her. But I knew that what she wanted was for me to move my arm a bit away from my exam paper so that she could read a few lines and patch together her own answer. I forced myself not to look at her. I scribbled on, holding my breath when a whiff from her clothes reached my nose. I glanced up at the teacher once; he was sitting at his desk, reading, his glasses low on his nose. He was a handsome man. When he looked up at the class his eyes sparkled, and his hair, blond on the top of his head, white on the sides, bristled. He didn't walk along the rows between desks during exams like other teachers. He said he trusted us. He said what history was supposed to do anyway was teach us what it meant to be an honorable man.

Eventually, towards the end of the hour we were allowed for the exam, I moved my hand enough for Angela to see what I'd written. I felt for a long time after that I'd lost something, not my honor, not in the sense my history teacher meant it. I felt sorry for Angela, though I was afraid of her, of her poverty, of her being an outsider, and most of all I think of her serenity about it. During that history exam I did something I didn't think I was capable of: cheat. It felt deeply wrong, but it also felt inevitable. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

I was very troubled by this. I told myself for a long time that I hadn't cheated on purpose, that I'd simply moved my hand -- it could have happened by accident, it could have been a muscle spasm -- and that Angela had the choice of looking at my answer or not. But I'd made a choice too. I'm not sure even now that it was the right one.


Blogger madness rivera said...

How many times do you think Angela caught a break in her life? Did anything ever come easy to her? Hardly ever I'm sure no matter what her demeanor. It was not cheating what you did, it was compassion.

I missed you too, C. I was really looking forward to talking to you on Sat. night. I had every intention of going but when 4:30 rolled around, I was playing and snuggling with the girls and I couldn't bring myself to leave.

December 19, 2005  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Hands down that's the best reason to stay home. Thanks for continuing to read.

December 19, 2005  
Blogger mihai said...


I come from the communist Romania myself but I wouldn't see helping eachother as a form of chating, when one lives in a repressive system. I'd rather see it as a form of beating the system, as resistance.

The second reason why it was not cheating is that ethics can be reduced to the prisoner's dilemma. When you have to act and your intrest competes with someone elses interest, colaborating with each other would advance you both, but not collaborating would advance the cheater much more than collaborating, that is a decision that has something to do with morals. In your case, it would have been cheating if the teacher's intrest or Angela's would have been damaged by your action. Did the teachers position got worse from your action? Would his position really have been better if you din't cheat? I don't think so.

December 24, 2005  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thank you for your comments, Mihai. It was a bit of a shock to see your name -- I feel rather isolated from the Romanian community here in the US. I tend to think about ethical issues in abstract rather than practical terms, an approach that for sure has limitations. Like you said, neither the teacher nor Angela was damaged by my cheating, not in any significant way. But it's interesting and useful to think about the moral value of your behavior independent of its consequences. I want to be clear that this is simply one of many possible approaches -- and the more there are the better one can get to the heart of the matter.

January 04, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Sorry, M, I assumed you were in the US and you aren't. I checked out your blog and stand corrected.

January 04, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home