The group of students stood silently in five rows of ten, each waiting with anticipation to hear their name called out so they could proudly walk up on stage and collect their award. They were dressed in blue ceremonial robes, complete with mortarboard hats.
At the end of the last row stood Mike Watson. Having a surname starting with ‘W’ meant he’d be the last to take the stage, shake hands with the Dean and receive his piece of paper. To the others it was a certificate of accomplishment, but to Mike it was just a piece of paper. He knew he didn’t deserve it. He could accept the congratulations from his friends and family, but he still had to live with the knowledge that he’d cheated.
Somehow he’d gotten away with it so he should be feeling relieved. His parents were proud; the world was his. Instead, he was consumed by guilt.
As he watched his peers take the stage, his stomach began turning and his legs felt weak. Once the Dean called Kelly Underfield, Mike knew he would be next. He tried to steady his nerves in preparation for the long walk.
Just as he was considering sneaking away, his name was called. The audience clapped and he wished he could step back and be one of them. The applause from his family seemed more distinct. His mother’s clap was faster than his father’s.
Could he get out of the situation by simply not accepting ownership of his name? No, expectant eyes were on him so he swallowed hard and began the journey up to the stage.
How had he let it get this far? Some part of his conscious told him he should just come clean and express his guilt, just grab the microphone and tell everybody he’d cheated.
When Mike stepped onto the stage the change in altitude brought with it a wave of vertigo. He steadied himself then approached the Dean who extended his hand to shake. Mike felt the smile on the Dean’s face held a sinister quality.
Mike tried to ignore the thought, but couldn’t. Somehow the Dean had found out, but waited until Mike’s friends and family were around before breaking the news.
The Dean would humiliate him as soon as he took the piece of paper!
Come clean. Tell them before he does.
The Dean shook Mike’s hand.
‘Congratulations Mr. Watson.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I don’t have to. He doesn’t know.’
The Dean offered the certificate, the thing Mike had wanted most since he was sixteen. His parents had put their own needs aside to support him, not just financially, but emotionally. Was that part of the reason he’d cheated? – No. He just hadn’t been smart enough. Was that such a crime? Well, maybe it was. He could cheat his was through university, but once he entered the work force… what then?
His future was almost within reach. All he had to do was reach out and take it.
When the students had returned to their allocated positions and the last speech had been made they erupted into cheer. Mortarboards were flung up high and floated free in the breeze, much like the students they belonged to.
Mike stood amongst his peers, his certificate tucked into his pocket. He’d taken his hat off along with the other students, but hadn’t thrown it. Instead, he waited until the right moment then tossed it to the ground. It landed with the rest of them.
Nobody noticed. Nobody would.