There’s nothing quite like identify fraud to capture the imagination. Cases like “Clark Rockefeller” and now, Adam Wheeler – accused of faking his way into Harvard, and nearly into a Rhodes Scholarship – fascinate because they are, at once, both likely and unlikely.  They’re likely because it’s just not that hard to fake the kind of application that wins awards, especially if you’re inside the elite academic world (which Wheeler, who got into Bowdoin College under his own steam, certainly was) and you know which credentials will turn on an admissions committee.  But they’re unlikely because they require such extraordinary deception, including a deception of the self. It’s that self-deception – usually the result of low confidence – that makes a case like Adam Wheeler’s seem as much pathetic as criminal.

When I taught high school English, I caught a number of plagiarists and most could have done decent work without cheating. More often than not, they also spent longer stealing someone else’s writing than they would have doing their own.   I never ran into a ready-made essay, bought, turned in, and forgotten.  Instead, I saw students nab essays off the Internet, then carefully change words and insert their own ideas at odd (and revealing) intervals.  I saw cases where someone merged a cribbed essay with an original outline in a way that seemed far more complicated than just writing from scratch.  

“Why?” I asked one such student. She was a strong writer, but she turned in a final essay that referred to such sophisticated literary concepts that I Googled a few lines and – bam – there was the original on some graduate student’s personal website.  My student shook her head. She didn’t really know, she said. She looked at me as if hoping I could make sense of the situation for her. Then she said something I’ve never forgotten: “Thank you for noticing.”

“Noticing what?” I asked.

“Noticing that it wasn’t my work. It feels good to know someone is paying attention.”

It’s Psych 101 to suggest that kids (and sometimes adults) may misbehave to get attention, particularly if they aren’t getting attention by behaving.  What’s so striking about the Wheeler case is that, according to the Boston Globe, his real high school principal said Wheeler had a lot going for him: He was “quiet and well-liked,” played in the marching band, was in the National Honor Society and the top 10 percent of his class.  But somehow, that wasn’t enough, and it’s not hard for me to imagine why.   A kid the principal sees as “quiet” is the one that causes no trouble, the one who does his work competently but not brilliantly.  He’s the B + kid. As a teacher, it’s easy to spend your time on the academic stand-outs and the ones who can’t pass your class without lots of extra-help sessions.  The B + kid can get lost in the shuffle. 

I suspect that in the coming weeks, we’ll hear more about Adam Wheeler’s psychological state. We’re also likely to see some hand-wringing over the inflated expectations elite colleges now have of applicants, expectations so high that nobody thought it strange a college student professed to be writing books and giving lectures and have perfect scores on everything.  (As an MIT official told the Globe, too-good-to-be true is the new normal.)   But I hope his case also casts a little light on the “quiet but well-liked kids,” the kids who deserve as much attention as their super-star and messed-up peers – and shouldn’t have to go to such great lengths to get it.