On Wednesday, June 13, Nayeem Ahsan walked into a fourth-floor classroom at Stuyvesant High School with some two dozen other students to take a physics test—one of a number of Regents Exams that many New York State high-school juniors are required to take. Small and skinny with thick black hair and a bright, shy smile, Nayeem is 16. Like many teenage boys, he seems to straddle two worlds: One moment you see a man, another a boy.
The son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Nayeem was born in Flushing Hospital and raised in Jackson Heights, a 35-minute subway ride to Stuyvesant in lower Manhattan. In the academically elite world of Stuyvesant, Nayeem maintains solid if unremarkable grades, and is a friendly, popular-enough kid known to take photographs of sports teams after school and post them on Facebook. When he walked into the exam room that morning, he seemed confident and calm. Nothing about him suggested he was about to pull off the most brazen feat of cheating in the illustrious school’s 107-year history.
Nayeem had cased the room beforehand. His iPhone had spotty service inside Stuyvesant, and he wanted to be sure he’d have a signal. He tested the device in the second seat of the first row—he’d assumed he would be seated alphabetically—and it worked. He tried out the second seat counting from the other side of the room just to be safe—also good. Then he examined the sight lines to both seats from the teacher’s desk—what could the proctor see and not see?—and checked out the seats where he thought some of his friends would be sitting. One was right in front of the teacher. He made a note of that. That kid was out.
Nayeem had cheated on tests before. By his junior year, he and his friends had become fairly well-known procurers of copies of exams handed down from students who had taken a class a year or two earlier. But since that wasn’t possible with a Regents Exam, the phone was his method of choice. He’d cheated that way before, too. In his three years at Stuyvesant, in fact, he’d become somewhat skilled at surreptitiously texting during a test, developing a knack for taking out his phone and glancing down at it for just a millisecond without being noticed.
Regents Exams are typically administered for three hours. After two hours, students who are done are allowed to leave. Nayeem is a good physics student. He worked his way through the test quickly, as he knew he would, finishing in an hour and a half. (He’d later learn he received a 97.) His plan had been to use the next half-hour or so to type the multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school. In return, he expected help from others on future tests. He was the point person on this exam; others would play that role for subjects they excelled in. He and his friends had been helping one another this way for some time.
That day, however, there was a glitch. The proctor was someone Nayeem knew, Hugh Francis, an English teacher, and he was not just sitting at the desk but walking around the room. Francis even caught the girl next to Nayeem using her phone in the first few minutes of the test. While cell phones technically aren’t allowed in city schools, that rule was widely ignored at Stuyvesant. Many of the school’s students, some as young as 13, travel far from home, and their families insist on staying in touch. “Put it back in your pocket,” the proctor said, and the girl complied. It was all Nayeem could do to send a text to his friends: “Okay, I got you guys later.”
Nayeem had been writing the answers on a piece of scrap paper as he went along so he wouldn’t have to flip back and forth once he had the chance to text. He waited for the shift change. During a Regents Exam, two teachers share the proctoring duties, handing off the mantle at the 90-minute mark. When Francis left, he was replaced by a woman Nayeem had never seen before. She sat behind the desk and was less vigilant. As long as she stayed seated, Nayeem realized, she couldn’t see his phone. All he had to do was place it flat on the desk and curl his forearm around it.
He got bolder. Turning to page one of his completed exam, Nayeem lifted his phone just enough to snap a picture of that page, then put the phone down again. Over the next few minutes, he photographed the whole test booklet—all fifteen pages.
The night before, Nayeem had sent a group-text message to 140 classmates: “If you guys get this, I’ve got the answers for you tomorrow.” The students on Nayeem’s list included honor-roll students, debate-team members, and “Big Sibs” (upperclassmen deemed responsible enough to mentor incoming freshmen). There were kids who were also good at physics (to double check Nayeem’s answers) and a girl he liked. That list still existed on his phone from the text he’d sent the night before. He hit send fifteen times, once for each page of the test. When it occurred to him that some kids didn’t have iPhones, he went back to manually typing in all the answers and sent them too. The proctor never saw anything.