Nerd World

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Chapter 16 - Paul

When I was in 9th grade, not long after my first experience with Trivia Master, I had this idea that I was going to chronicle every way someone had cheated at the contest. It was partially for my own benefit, partially an attempt to leave something for future classes so that they didn’t get caught off guard. I gave up pretty quickly, though. It was around the time I hit page thirty that I realized that I was never going to finish. Every year, someone comes up with a brand new set of dirty tricks. It’s gotten to the point that the school doesn’t really bother trying to stop anything but the most egregious forms of foul play, because the kids are just too good at inventing new forms.

But here’s the thing: Even with all of these tricks and shortcuts available, the simplest, oldest technique – obtaining an early copy of the questions – is the most common. Scholarly leagues regularly publish books of trivia for practice purposes, but these are never used in actual tournaments because they are simply too easy to obtain. Every serious trivia champ owns an ever–growing library of trivia books, all carefully categorized and tabbed. Instead, the questions for Trivia Master are written specifically for the event, usually about a month in advance. The authors include teachers and staff, high school students who are not participating in the tournament, the occasional volunteer from nearby Garden College, and a few local parents – provided that their own children aren’t competing, of course. Once the list is composed, the school takes measures to ensure that the list is not taken ahead of time. The test results are stored electronically in the gifted education room, which is either locked or watched by someone at all times.

Unfortunately, Northwest misses something big. Apparently, they never considered that someone can get hold of the questions without sneaking into the gifted room and breaking into a computer. Their measures may prevent students from stealing the questions, but not from buying the questions. With the right connections, it is not all that difficult to bribe, blackmail or otherwise persuade a question writer into leaking the list. They may prevent the most obvious abuses by keeping out parents of competitors, but they barely raise an eyebrow at the prospect of siblings, cousins, or friends of contestants working on the tournament.

Granted, there are some practical drawbacks to stealing questions – the difficulty in memorizing such a long list in a short amount of time, for one – and there is honestly little evidence that this sort of cheating is widespread. However, there are other things that one can do with a question list besides memorize it. One could, say, frame a rival by typing the list onto Northwest High internal stationery and put it in someone else’s locker.

“Okay, be cool,” said Ken. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“Yeah, okay.” I quickly shoved the envelope into my bag. “We need to deal with this.”

“All right. How?

“I don’t know. Let’s go back to my place, we can figure it out there.”

“Right. Try to act natural.”

That’s not such an easy demand when you’re carrying something that’s very much against the rules. In that moment, I’d actually forgotten what natural was for me. Would running be conspicuous? Did I ever run out of the building on a Friday? If I had run out of the building before, might walking be more conspicuous?

Actually, this is one time when the invisibility that comes with being the smart kid really pays off. Anyone else who avoided eye contact, or didn’t stop to talk to anyone, or rushed around with no apparent reason would look extremely suspicious. On the other hand, no one even paid attention to Ken and me. When people assume that you’re strange, no one notices strange behavior.

The only thing we could do was keep up a steady pace and try not to give away the game. I think Ken held his breath until we were completely off school grounds. At that point we were safe, at least from the most obvious prying eyes.

Two blocks and a bus ride later, we were at the Liston apartment, shut away in my room. I double–checked that the blinds were shut and put everything with a camera in it face down before I even removed the envelope from my bag – paranoid perhaps, but given the circumstances I wasn’t ready to take any risks. Once I was sure we were concealed from the outside world, I twisted open the tab on the envelope and very carefully pulled out the contents just far enough to see the top edge. It was typed on some kind of special stationary, the kind they use for office memos.

“Do they actually type the questions onto the letterhead?” I said.

“I don’t think so,” said Ken, eyeballing the paper. “When Mr. Laubhan reads the questions, they’re just on regular printer paper.”

“So why is this copy on the stationery?” I pulled the document out a little bit farther, just enough to see the first question. It had been typed onto the stationery with a typewriter – an odd measure, even for this school. “There’s no questioning where it came from, not with it on office stationery like this. I could never plead ignorance if I were caught with this.”

“You think that’s the point?”

“Of course it’s the point. This wasn’t dropped off by a old friend.”

Ken stroked his chin. “When do you think they dropped it off, anyway?”

“Well, I was in my locker before sixth period, so it couldn’t have been this morning. My guess is it was dropped off during the entry test. If the person who did this took the test too, then he has one hell of an alibi.”

“That’s ingenious. Someone put a lot of planning into this.”

“No kidding.” I slid the document back into the envelope. “And if you cross the group of people who could do this and the people who would do this, you get a very short list.”

“Aaron Baines Bellamy.” Ken said the name like he was describing a supervillain. “Why didn’t he turn you in right away?”

“Probably would have been too suspicious,” I said.

“Plus it’s not his style,” said Ken. “Maybe he’s gonna have someone come in on Monday and claim he heard a rumor, or saw something go down. If the school got suspicious enough, they’d check your locker for sure.”

I stared at the folder. Only Aaron could come up with something this sophisticated, but this didn’t feel like his style, either. “...No. He wanted me to find this. Aaron had to know that I’d check my locker and find this. He wants me to know that he can get to me. He wants me to sweat.”

“Interesting,” said Ken. “But I guess there’s no way of proving any of this, huh?”

“Without finding Aaron’s accomplices? I don’t see it happening.”

“Well, either way, it’s another 60 hours until Aaron knows what we know.”

“That’s a good point.” I picked up the envelope and walked to the computer. “You feeling mischievous?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“We’re going to share this with the world.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Not yet, but I’m getting there.” I pulled out the document and laid it face down on my scanner. “We’re going to send this cheat sheet out, but it’s going to have a few errors in it.”

“Oh, wow!” Ken clapped his hands – he seems to find scheming amusing when we do it. “But wait, how are you going to disseminate it? We don’t have enough time to spread it around. You gonna just post it to some website?”

“Eh...we do that, no one would have any reason to believe that it’s legit. Wouldn’t be the first fake that’s leaked out like that.” Suddenly, I had an idea – one that was both devious and righteous. “But, we use a throwaway email account, anonymously send some copies to the right bigmouths...”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Ken.

“Well, doing a bad thing for a good cause is okay, right?” I flicked on the printer and waited as it warmed up. “Why don’t you go ahead and order that pizza? Make it a premium, I’m paying.”

The less computer savvy among you may have missed the exact nature of my plan, so here’s the short version. Having scanned Aaron’s fake document into the machine, I can edit the image any way I want. I’m not that good at it, but then again it doesn’t take much to change a letter or a number – to tweak the results and make them wrong. Next, I have to distribute my very special copies. Time was that I would’ve had to print them off and drop them in lockers, risking being caught myself. Fortunately, the school made things much easier when they started collecting contact information from all the students. I always thought it was intrusive and unnecessary (and not just because Aaron Bellamy now has my email address) but damned if it doesn’t come in handy when you’re looking to reach out to the right people. All I have to do is send a few blind emails to a dozen or so people whom I know can’t keep a secret, and they’ll do the job for me.

This scheme might seem cruel – even unfair. Let me explain how I see it. Basically, there are two schools of thought when it comes to preventing misdeeds such as cheating. First, you can make it more difficult to cheat. Every school in the nation does this – the idea is that if you build a wall big enough, it will keep people out. This is not especially effective. Anyone who wants to get over that wall will eventually find a way to do it. All cheating prevention does is make the cheaters work harder.

I have a more elegant solution. If I had my way, the schools would make it riskier to cheat. If it seems like cheating may backfire, it forces the cheater to reconsider. Think of it as the barbed wire solution – crossing the field isn’t the problem, it’s getting out unscathed. Most schools avoid this because it is perceived as excessively punitive. I am not similarly restrained.

Later that evening – after double pepperoni pizza and a short Godfrey Ho marathon – Ken and I were in the alley behind the building with a metal trashcan and a cigarette lighter. The two of us watched as Aaron’s little scheme turned into so much ash.

“It’s only going to get worse from here, you know,” said Ken. “I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to quit. Seriously, it’s okay.”

I chuckled a little. Ken only makes these offers when he’s sure I won’t take him up. “What, quit now and let that prick think he can buffalo me? Not a chance!”

“That’s the spirit! I’ll see you Monday.”

As Ken left, I looked at the pile of ash that was once Aaron’s weapon against me. I wish I could have called this a win, but it really wasn’t. I wish I could say that I stopped my enemy’s plan before it got off the ground, but the blow had already been struck. Aaron did what he set out to do – he proved that he could destroy me, and that was something I’ve lived with ever since.

No one would have blamed me if I had quit. If I knew what was coming I probably would have.

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