As a role model for students, I'd like to say I never cheated in school. Unfortunately, that's not true.
In my defense, I will say I almost ever cheated. But I did it for the same reason I never shoplifted - I was terrified of getting caught.
My first venture into student criminality was in third grade and I remember it perfectly, perhaps because it was a textbook example of stupidity.
We had some sort of test and I was knocking it dead until I came to the last question, which was: "A peninsula is a body of land surrounded by water on A) two sides B) three sides C) all sides."
Immediately, I thought the answer was three sides. Then I did what's become the bane of my existence - I indulged in some serious thinking.
Three sides for a peninsula? Was that right? The water's not on one side, and I don't think it's on all sides. So how's about two sides? A side and a half? And on and on with my idiotic cogitation till I'd talked myself into believing a peninsula could be a body of land surrounded by a body of land. Then my brain ground to a halt.
After that I did what no one should ever do - I looked on the test of the girl next to me. Her name was Sharon and she was darn near perfect - one of those little dolls with pigtails, freckles and bright blue eyes, always smiling, always polite and always right.
I saw her answer and without hesitation, I copied it on my test.
So imagine my surprise when I got back the test and found her answer (a body of land surrounded by water on all sides) was wrong!
It was poetic justice at its best, though I failed to appreciate it as either poetry or justice.
Necessity is the mother of authorship
I committed my second act of academic dishonesty in Mrs. Wilson's eighth-grade English class. It was hardly as brazen as my first classroom delinquency; in fact, it was downright creative. Nonetheless, it was hardly on the up and up.
It was caused by a little problem I had with a book report. The problem was the report was due on Monday but by Sunday I still hadn't read a book.
What to do?
I did the only thing I could - I wrote a book report about a book that I hadn't read. And the reason I hadn't read the book was because it didn't exist. Or perhaps more exactly, it existed but only in my fertile imagination.
Entitled "A Trip Down the Nile," it was an epic adventure based loosely on the travels of Richard Halliburton, combined with some stuff I'd read in barbershop copies of Argosy and True.
I can't remember the protagonist's name, but he was a dashing Brit with a pencil mustache and a scar down the left side of his face (put there by a Bedouin's dagger in an earlier adventure).
He hadn't been back in Old Blighty in years, having ridden, driven, sailed and hiked over every land mass and ocean imaginable. The Nile run was probably his last hurrah, what with his having reached the grand old age of 40 mandatory retirement for adventurers as I'd imagined them.
He traveled down the Nile in a raft - a detail I stole from Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki - and suffice it to say, every minute of the trip was rife with excitement. It ranged from attack by Nubian pirates; rammings from 60-foot long, man-eating crocodiles; dehydration; starvation and sunburn; to one king hell of a toothache (which ended when he plied out the infected incisor with a rusty screwdriver).
But he survived it all and when his raft pulled into Cairo harbor, he was greeted by millions of cheering Egyptians.
Then he returned to London to be knighted by the queen. He was many shades darker and many pounds lighter, but many, many dollars richer - thanks to his publishing contracts and all.
I still remember the report's last sentence, a classic: "And when I finished this book, I felt as if I'd just said goodbye to a good friend."
Mrs. Wilson was a tough grader and a tough cookie all around, but I knew ending my report with such deathless prose would impress her. And it did - she gave me an 85, the highest grade I ever received from her.
You might think getting such a high mark would encourage me to be a good student, but, sadly, it didn't. It did, however, launch my writing career.
For as a result of my undetected villainy, I learned the first lesson of storytelling, which is this: Slavish adherence to truth is a pathetic cop-out for people with no imagination.