Nayeem’s parents, he says, had always wanted him to go to Stuyvesant. Najmul publishes a small cultural Bangladeshi newspaper in Queens, and his mother, Nilasur, stays at home. Nayeem’s older sister had gone to La Guardia High School and later NYU, but Nayeem felt he was expected to do even better. When Nayeem was in seventh grade, he went to an open house at Stuyvesant. He remembers marveling at how big the place was—ten floors, with a swimming pool—and hearing about the colleges graduates attended. “It’s almost like a dream experience, right? It showed me that I’m not just working to make my parents happy. I’m working to make my future look a lot better than what it is now.”
Nayeem started studying for the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the gateway to the city’s elite public schools, two or three afternoons a week in the summer before seventh grade at a so-called cram school in Queens. By the middle of seventh grade, he bumped up to five days a week. By the time the SHSAT came around, he’d practically memorized every question on every published test-prep manual for the exam. In eighth grade, he scored in the low 600s on the test—not as well as his coaches expected, but good enough to get into Stuyvesant. His long-term goal was Harvard.
Almost from his first day at Stuyvesant, Nayeem knew what GPA he’d need to maintain to have a shot at Harvard. “When you get into Stuy, they show you where the graduating seniors went to college and what grades they got,” Nayeem says. “You don’t get to see names, but you get to see their GPA in every subject and their SAT scores.” But the schoolwork was more difficult than Nayeem expected. He dreaded double-period science days, when he’d come home with nine pages of notes, handwritten back and front, then have to comb through them to complete an assignment. So he learned to set priorities. He knew, for instance, that one of his teachers checked homework once every four days. “There were days where I had so much other work, I was like, ‘Okay, what are the chances she’s going to check today?’ And most of the time, she didn’t check.”
By the end of the first term, Nayeem’s GPA hovered around 89—solid, but not high enough for Harvard. He began staying up all night studying at friends’ houses. “My parents were a little tentative,” he says. “They’d rather I stay home, but they understood.” By the end of his second term, Nayeem had raised his GPA to 92. That’s when he says his biology teacher offered the class a deal: If everyone correctly completed their final Friday assignment, working through the weekend on it, she would raise everyone’s average by three points. “She knew there was this one guy who wouldn’t do it,” he says. “He never did a single homework or a single lab.”
But Nayeem wasn’t going to miss out on this chance for extra credit because of a slacker. On Friday night, he rushed and finished the homework. Then he put it up on Facebook as a note, tagging about fifteen of the kids in his class (he says he did it to lift the whole group up). It was, as he recalls, his first major act of cheating. He got caught and the class didn’t get the three points, but, he says, the teacher took mercy on him and didn’t turn him in.
When Nayeem began struggling in his sophomore year (trigonometry was especially hard for him), he started sharing—and borrowing—answers more. By junior year, when grades matter most to colleges, cheating had become a regular habit. “History had five teachers. I was getting tests for four of them. I was being nice to everyone, and they started helping me out.” By now he realized “how lazy teachers could be. I studied for the first test. But I looked at the new test and last year’s test and they were, like, 75 percent the same exact questions and the same exact answers. So I was like, ‘Okay, why am I studying?’ ”
Some teachers teach not just the same subject but the same class for three or four different periods over the course of a day. Nayeem began passing test answers from the early classes to the later ones. He knew he was taking a risk, but he also knew he hadn’t officially been caught yet, not even for a first offense. (At Stuyvesant, a first cheating incident triggers a warning, and a second goes on your permanent record, which compels you to answer yes when asked on college applications if you’ve ever cheated.) Nayeem’s rationale for who he did and didn’t share answers with was byzantine. “There’s kids you know, and there’s kids you really know. There are kids I trust a lot and kids I care about. There are kids I really don’t care too much about, but I want them to have a bright future. There are kids that can help me in the future. There are kids that are good at most subjects, but they suck at one, and I worked that to my advantage.”