Why you should care
Because there are dozens of ways to skin a cat.
Stuyvesant High School, a specialized school in New York City currently having a moment over the fairness of its admissions test, is my alma mater. With only seven African-American students accepted into this fall’s class, questions are being asked as to why. Meanwhile, America is asking questions about celebrities arrested for buying their kids access to Ivy League schools, and Asian parents are suing Harvard for being denied admission.
Translation: It’s a mess, made even messier by the fact that the kids at Stuyvesant, smart as they are, are keenly aware of the stakes. Put another way, why kill yourself to go to a crap college? Which is why the kind of cheating happening at one of the best high schools in America is worthy of one of the best high schools in America.
During my SAT exam, I kept hearing a squeaking noise behind me. In the old Stuyvesant building on 15th Street, everything was old, so this was not unusual. What was unusual was its persistence and volume. When I turned around, I saw that a friend of mine, an exchange student, was opening and closing his desk. This was not a hard-to-notice activity. But there it was: The desk opened, my friend’s head bowed and then the sound of book pages being flipped through.
This continued throughout the entire English portion of the SAT. I looked at the proctor for some sign of recognition — not because I wanted my friend to be caught but because I just couldn’t believe he wouldn’t be.
I hobbled up next to my friend, grabbed the bag, pulled the crowbar out of my pant leg.
Punchline: He got into Princeton. Clearly, as graceless as it was, cheating had its rewards. And yeah, you can keep all that rebop about “you’re only cheating yourself.” You know that no one who ever went to an Ivy League ever believed that. Which is how another friend of mine — my best friend — and I found ourselves discussing college plans. Specifically, his.
“My grades aren’t good enough to apply to the schools you’re applying to,” he said. His father was a judge; his mother, a lawyer. But he had been felled by a bad case of swine flu and had missed a lot of classes, and that was something that could kill you at a place like Stuyvesant.
My second choice, the University of Michigan, was my friend’s first choice. My first choice, Stanford, just didn’t seem realistic to him. When I had met Michigan alum at an event designed to lure promising high school seniors to the Midwest, they ignored me, the Black teen, until they found out where I went to high school — a harbinger of undergrad misery if there ever was one, and I had hardened against Michigan.
So my friend had to get into Stanford. “But my grades …”
“Don’t worry about that,” I said. On our long walks — we never had much money to spend, but New York in the ’70s was a regular amusement park — we’d decided on a course of action: We’d break into the school late one night and change his grades. It was that simple.
As friends, we were really close. How close? One night at Studio 54 they let me in but wouldn’t let my friend in. I bailed on Studio 54. That’s how close.
So, with rubber gloves, a crowbar, bandannas masking our faces, white-out correction fluid and a whole variety of pens and markers, we set out on our glorious mission.
Since our school day ended at 3 pm, we figured that the school closed shortly after. Showing up at 9 pm seemed a safe bet. But 15th Street was well-lit, and there were still lights on in the building when we arrived, so we cruised by the park, working out the finer points of our Tom Sawyer–Huck Finn excursion into the unknown.
By 11 pm, things had quieted down. We strolled down 15th and up to a fenced railing where we talked a bit before jumping over into a stairwell that led us down to two doors in what would have been the basement, under the vice principal’s office.
“Hold the bag,” I whispered, right before jamming the crowbar into the small space between the doors. Then I yanked.
It made more noise than I expected, but rather than scaring me off, it made me dig down even deeper. I yanked again.
“Hold on.…” I yanked so hard I could see light.
“Gimme a minute….”
“EUGENE!” There was an urgency this time, enough that I stopped.
“What?” I hissed. We were almost there.
“I can’t do this.…”
“Come on, we’re —”
And he ran. Since he had taken the bag I had to shove the crowbar down one pant leg. When I come up the stairs, leg stiff like a pirate, I saw my friend disappearing into the park. I hobbled up next to him, grabbed the bag, pulled the crowbar out of my pant leg and put it the bag. He was in the grips of a mortal terror.
“I … I just …”
“It’s OK,” I told him.
We walked in silence to Union Square, where I took a train back into Brooklyn while he caught one to the Upper West Side.
He got into the University of Michigan and went on to become an architect. I went to Stanford. We see each other infrequently, but when we do it’s very much like old times — minus the breaking and entering. We’ve never talked about that night again.