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September 21, 1991

DRILLING DOWN

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Teenagers know peer pressure well. They face it every day in surprisingly high volume, on every subject from hairstyles and lip gloss to sexual activity and drug use. And the majority of teens haven’t built up a strong enough sense of self to resist the pressure from their friends.

But as adults, we’re expected to be a bit more tough when it comes to peer pressure—and we expect that adults don’t pressure their peers quite as much. But that’s a pretty tough expectation. For really, pressure occurs every day in the board room, at your desk, in a sales meeting to push the ethical limits or to give up under pressure.

Some might say that Jessica Siegel gave up too early on her fight. Siegel was nearly 30 when she entered the system as an English teacher. Besides teaching, she spent time advising aspiring journalists on the school paper and spent a lot of her time keeping in touch with the kids and their families. She wanted to make a difference.

Samuel Freedman, a former New York Times report, decided to spend a year observing and writing about life in the local high school where Siegel taught. He interviewed students and sat in the classrooms, and eventually wrote a book on Siegel’s experiences.

But what came as a surprise was that when the year let out, Siegel chose not to renew her teaching contract. She quit, and people questioned her motives. Did she need a break? Didn’t she care about those kids? Didn’t she want to make a difference?

The fact is, she did want to make a difference. And she did in the lives of a few kids. But that might not have been enough for her. She was frustrated with her situation and surroundings and wished she could do more.

Siegel was on the right track. She was working hard, she was connecting with the kids, and really starting to get somewhere with some of them. But the pressure of everyday life in the school in which she taught took its toll. There’s no faulting Siegel for her decision. It’s her life, her choice, and she has her reasons. But this is a good example of how pressure can cause us to collapse, even with the best intentions.

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