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If the sudden clanging of a fire alarm reached your ears, how would you react? That’s obvious, you’re probably thinking, imagining your adrenaline at its apex as you began the heart-stopping race to get out of the building. I actually thought the answer was pretty obvious, too, until the fire alarm blared one day not too long ago at work.

Here’s how the scene played out:

We were a group of women – teachers, therapists, and administrative staff –congregated in the large office of our educational agency. We were gabbing about the warm weather, exchanging great dinner ideas, and hashing out the most effective ways to remove tough stains from carpet. In short, we were the picture of calmness and camaraderie.

At 12:35 PM, the building exploded with sound. The alarm’s urgent screams competed for attention with the spinning lights that were coloring the large room an eerie red.

“Is this a drill or the real thing?” The question hung thickly in the air and was writ large upon everyone’s faces. Eyebrows went up, chins went down, and hands reached for pocketbooks as instinctively as a hungry chimpanzee reaches for a proffered banana. However – and this is a big “however” – no one stirred! Not a single person ran for the safety of the outdoors. We employees looked at one another, mentally weighing thesafety factor against the prospect of looking utterly foolish in the event of a false alarm. Seconds whizzed by with the women asking each other “Should we exit?” and “You think it’s for real?” as if asking a friend for fashion advice. I, too, was guilty of inaction.

Then it suddenly began to smell of smoke. There was no misinterpreting the cries of the fire alarm now. And still we didn’t leave!Oh, how intense the pressure of those moments was! I want to leave, I thought, but how come I’m the only one who does? Why isn’t anyone else a nervous, paranoid wreck like I am?Apparently, all of the women were harboring identical thoughts because everyone remained as rooted to their chairs as a ripening beet to the earth.

After about 120 seconds, the voice of Linda, our leading administrator, rang over the intercom. “This is not a drill. Please leave the building immediately.” At last, I stood up and walked briskly down the long hallway toward the exit, my nose trying in vain to dodge the fiery smell. On my way, I noticed an incredible thing: nearly all the employees were looking over their shoulders! Was this simply one giant bout of following the crowd? Of plain, old peer pressure playing out?

Outside, I sure had a lot to think about. I scarcely paid attention to the throngs of people streaming out of the building and blinking fiercely as they stepped into the sunlight. I wondered: What took us so long? Could it really be that we were willing to sacrifice our safety in exchange for fitting in? I know for a fact that if this had happened while I was alone, say, in my home, I would have been out before you could say “false alarm.” But, for some reason, in this situation, I felt bound by the social norms of the moment, watching to see what others would do before I acted.

I realized then, that peer pressure exists to a great degree among adults too – even mature, levelheaded ones. If we don’t break the desire to please our peers, we will spend our whole lives going against our instincts, just imagine that! The world would miss out on what each one of us has to offer because we don’t place enough value on ourselves as individuals. It’s as the Rabbi of Kotzk said: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” I’d like to be certain that, in a situation where my morals could Gd forbid be compromised, I’d remain strong in my beliefs and do what I knew to be right and true.

We learned the source of the fire alarm after we’d been given the green light to reenter the building. One of the preschool classes had just completed a unit on the five senses and decided to celebrate with a popcorn party. Somehow the popcorn machine set itself aflame and triggered the fire alarm. Well, one thing is for sure – the kids learned aboutsmells, sounds, and sights anyhow, even if their popcorn party did go up in smoke!