Years ago I taught a seminary class filled with the “stars” of the senior class: Mr. Macho, the all-state quarterback, a heart-stopper of every young lady in school; little Miss Pep, the head varsity cheerleader; Mr. President, our student body leader; Mr. Most-Likely-to-Succeed; and Mr. Brains, a young man who had already been offered several full-ride scholarships to some pretty prestigious universities. One day we all learned a sorry lesson that almost any of us can bend to peer pressure. Here’s how it happened.
I had read a magazine article on negative peer pressure. The article described an experiment I was tempted to try on my class of “achievers.” The experiment was designed to show, in a very convincing way, how powerful peer pressure can be. It didn’t really occur to me that the experiment might have some negative consequences.
In class the next morning I did as instructed in the experiment. On the chalkboard I drew a star, a circle, an oval, and a square. I told my class that for the next 50 minutes, the objects on the board were to be identified as a star, a circle, an oval, and a triangle, even though the square was obviously a square. It was now to be called a triangle and nothing else! In a moment they would have an opportunity to convince an unsuspecting visitor that the square was actually a triangle.
Six fold-out seats were set in front of the classroom. Mr. Quarterback, Miss Pep, Mr. President, Mr. Most-Likely-to-Succeed, and Mr. Brains were invited to take their seats, leaving one vacant chair. I then invited a freshman student into the classroom. He immediately recognized that he was among the “elite” of the high school. The students made him welcome. In no time he was feeling right at home. He was with the “Who’s Who” of the school and was thriving on it.
I invited him to take a seat in the one remaining chair in front of the class. I explained that when it came his turn, he was to simply identify the objects drawn on the board. He agreed. The others smiled. The lesson began.
“Mr. Quarterback, will you identify the objects on the board?”
In a deep, macho voice he said, “Star, circle, oval,” and then, coming to the square, he confidently said, “Triangle.”
Our visitor, forgetting himself, let out a laugh that conveyed the idea, “You’ve been sacked a few too many times.” But the rest of the people in the room were absolutely silent.
The freshman quickly searched the faces of those present for acknowledgement of Mr. Quarterback’s obvious mental fumble, but my students were playing their parts. To them that square was nothing more than a triangle. Mr. Freshman had a bewildered expression.
I then turned to Miss Pep.
“Would you please identify the objects on the board?”
She enthusiastically replied, “Star, circle, oval, triangle.”
The freshman fidgeted in his seat.
The class remained silent and nonchalant. Twice more the question was asked. Mr. President and Mr. Most-Likely-to-Succeed answered in perfect form.
By now our visitor looked slightly ill and had that “may-I-please-be-dismissed” expression on his face.
“Star, circle, oval, triangle,” Mr. Brains answered.
Now it was Mr. Freshman’s turn. With each object his voice grew weaker, shakier, and less confident.
“Star … circle … oval …” Then silence.
We looked at him. He looked at us.
“What’s the last object?” I asked.
“Come on, what is it?”
Then finally, quietly he spoke.
I thought we’d all break the tenseness with a good laugh. The experiment had worked. But instead there was silence.
I searched the students’ faces. They were all deep in thought. Some heads hung.
Then it hit me. Each one in the class could relate to the embarrassed freshman. Each in a foolish moment, wanting so badly to be accepted or to be part of the group, had in his own way called a square a triangle, had committed a wrong when there was no misunderstanding. Even I could add my name to the list. And we all realized, especially me, that we had been unkind to put Mr. Freshman in such an awkward situation.
We spent the remainder of our class time sharing feelings and regrets, but more importantly sharing desires, hopes, and longings to be more courageous. Mr. Quarterback put his arm around Mr. Freshman, and we all reassured him that we’d made the mistake of bowing to pressure before, too. By the end of the class he was accepted by his peers—not because he’d given in, but because we’d all come to see the importance of never surrendering, of calling a square a square despite the consequences.
When the bell rang, we left as a group, wiser, more hopeful, and with a greater resolve to fight a good battle amid the pressures of the world.