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A Lesson in Conformity

(a lesson in conformity)
30 July 2004

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But when in 12B…”

It’s first period, Tuesday morning, the last week of classes before exams. I’m sitting at my desk, hurriedly marking a composition and waiting for the 12B learners to trickle in. Kristine enters first and I ask, “Is Ndapewa here today?”

“Yes miss. She’s here,” she replies with a sly smile. I give one slow, conspiratorial nod of my head, while slightly narrowing my eyes to impersonate a comic-book villain. The plan is already taking shape as the other learners hastily enter the room. With complete composure, they take their chairs and turn them around, so that they are facing the wall. All the learners sit with their backs to me and pretend to study their books. I remain intent on marking my papers, unperturbed by their incongruous behavior.

Ndapewa enters last, and is obviously confused as to why all her classmates are facing the wall instead of the front of the class. She confronts Katrina and Teopolina, “Why are you sitting like that?”

“We just are.” Confident.

Whining, “I know, but why?”

“Because.” Nonchalant.

“Because WHY??” Exasperated.

“Ms. Arcaro is busy. We don’t want to disturb her.” Of course.

“But why are you facing this way?” Ndapewa is one of the smartest learners in 12B. This really doesn’t make sense to her.

The class is really quiet and Ndapewa soon realizes she is making a spectacle of herself. She goes to her seat, shuffles her books around, glances around the room at everyone contentedly facing the wall studying. She takes her own chair, pulls it out. Hesitates. Inches it closer to the wall. Looks around furtively. Turns the chair around and sits facing the wall, like everyone else.

A wave of minor convulsions sweeps through the class. People bury their faces in their books and seem to be shaking. Occasional snorts and squeals escape. Before anything bursts, I suddenly finish marking and stand up to call attention to the class, “Good morning!” The signal that I will begin imparting English wisdom on them now. In unison, “Good morning, Miss!” They stand up and noisily turn their chairs around to sit normally. If Ndapewa was paying attention, she would notice that her classmates were a little more gleeful and smug than the situation warranted. But Ndapewa just seems glad that things are back to normal. I desperately need something from my storeroom and disappear before my own façade of normalcy breaks.

I emerge, avoid eye-contact with Ndapewa, and then I begin lying, “Ok class, you know the eyeglass people that were here last week? They told us that we need to check and see if anyone has vision problems. So I just want to check quickly. Look at these four columns.” I gesture towards the board, where I have drawn something resembling a bar-graph, with four columns labeled A, B, C, D. Column D is clearly the tallest, although column A is only slightly shorter. Columns B and C are drastically shorter. “OK, so, I just need you to tell me which column you think is the tallest.” I go around the room and have the learners say their answers out loud.


“Column A.” Ndapewa looks bored.


“A.” Ndapewa looks interested.


“I think A.” Ndapewa looks confused.


“A.” Ndapewa shakes her head.


“It’s A.” Ndapewa squints.


“A.” Ndapewa takes off her glasses and looks again.


“A, miss.” Ndapewa puts on her glasses again.


He struggles. Hesitates. Finally, “Ja, it’s A.” Ndapewa shifts in her chair.


“A.” Ndapewa bites her lip, frowns, squints.

“Ndapewa?” The whole class holds their breath.

“It’s…” She pauses. Looks again. Then, very quietly, “It’s…D?”

“Are you sure? Check again.”

“Yeah, it’s D? How is it A? Miss, I don’t understand!”

“Here, let me show you.” I draw a nonsensical slanting line between A and D to show her that it’s A.

“So it’s A because of that?” She traces my line, obviously tilting upwards, with her arm.

“Yeah. Of course.” She just shakes her head. I shrug, and move on to the next thing: Wilbard Namakumbu’s book report.

Wilbard is 21 years old, but already seems to be an old man, due to his serious demeanor, slow speech, and the brown zipper-sweater he always wears. Wilbard read a book about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. It’s a children’s story about how Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle cures all sorts of “ailments” such as selfishness, messiness, and disrespect, by letting the children go to the extreme of their faults so that they suffer from the results and decide to change on their own. For example, the boy who is messy becomes trapped in his room because he has so many things piled up that he can’t get the door open. He has to clean his room so he can get out to eat supper and play with his friends. Of all the oral book reports we’ve all sat through this term, Wilbard’s is certainly the most heartfelt. He concludes by saying, “I really liked this book. I wish I could be Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.” The class howls with laughter. Wilbard’s earnestness is not subverted. He corrects himself, “I wish I could be Mr. Piggle-Wiggle.” The class laughs again at the implied marriage. Wilbard doesn’t even crack a smile and plunges onward, “Because like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I also enjoy children. Adults are boring and make me nervous. I liked how she treated the children. The only thing I didn’t like was the exaggeration.” The class applauds at the use of this vocabulary word. “I didn’t like the exaggeration because I don’t understand how anyone can live in an upside-down house like she did,” he gravely concludes, and the class nearly gives him a standing ovation.

Eino came in late, during the book report. I explain the eye test and ask him which column is tallest. He scrutinizes the board for a few seconds and then states, “It’s A.”

This is the final blow for Ndapewa. She starts attacking Eino, “How can it be A? D is the tallest. Can’t you see?” Flailing her arms, pointing with her chin.

Eino retorts, “Yeah, I see,” he widens his eyes, “it’s A.”

Kristine intervenes. “Miss, can I show Ndapewa why it’s A?”

“Yes, sure. Please explain to her why A is tallest.”

Kristine comes to the board, takes a piece of chalk, and draws several arbitrary lines above the columns. “See, A is tallest,” she affirms after her art lesson.

Ndapewa looks out of the sides of her eyes, frowns, looks at the complacent faces of her trusted classmates, and finally caves in. Softly, “Ok, it’s A.”

The class instantaneously erupts, bursts, explodes into laughter. Ndapewa is still frowning at the board. She gradually becomes aware that she is the cause of the laughter. “What? It is some sort of joke? What’s going on?” Poor Ndapewa, she doesn’t realize that her sinister classmates and amoral English teacher were plotting against her while she was absent. She doesn’t realize she has been the victim of psychology experiment.

“Ndapewa, do you know what conformity is?” I write the word on the board.

“No.” She is sullen.

“When you were absent, we learned about conformity. Can someone tell Ndapewa what it is? Eino?”

“Conformity is where you do what everybody else is doing.” They all look at her expectantly as the meaning begins to sink in.

“So the answer is really D? I was right?”

“Yes.” This releases all the tension, and fresh peals of laughter. The class is very proud of themselves. They made a perfectly rational person completely doubt reality.

Ndapewa’s relief is evident. She’s not going insane after all! I begin to fill her in on what she missed, and what led to this cruel experiment. On Friday, when she was absent, I introduced the concept of conformity and then told the class about several conformity experiments that I saw videos of in my psychology classes back in college. I impersonated a test subject who gets into a crowded elevator where everyone is facing the back (instead of the door, like normal), and the subject slowly starts to turn around and face backwards, assuming there is some reason for it that she alone doesn’t know. I also told them about the experiment where everyone in a group has to say which column is taller. They all say the wrong one, and at last when it comes to the test subject, the victim usually said the wrong answer also.

“So, Ndapewa, your dear classmates, your trusted friends here,” I indicate the class (I am not the one to blame! It is they who betrayed you!), “suggested that we try the experiment on you.” She giggles. It was all a practical joke! Thankfully, she is taking it well. I wouldn’t have done this to just anyone. I hoped Ndapewa would be a good sport because she is the most popular person at Ekulo and has no shortage of self-esteem. Furthermore, she made the lesson even more poignant because she is notorious for being strong-willed and highly principled.

“Now, Ndapewa, I’m just wondering, why did you say ‘A’ at the end?”

“I just gave up. Everybody was saying A.”

“So even although you knew it was the wrong answer, you just went along with it because everyone else did?” The message can’t be more obvious.

“Yeah. I didn’t want to but you all seemed so sure.”

I continue the debriefing, emphasizing that all of them probably would have done the same thing if they were put in Ndapewa’s position. Then we discuss examples of conformity in the books we’ve read and in real life. To be fair, I also explain that conformity can also be quite useful, such as when we all obey the traffic laws and drive on the same side of the road as other cars going in the same direction. “So,” I conclude my grand lesson as the bell rings, “the most important thing to remember is to be aware of conformity and to think before you do what everyone else is doing.”

“Yes, Miss!” they all say in unison.

* * *

This is a picture of 12B. 
Top row: from left to right: Wilbard, Fipps, Ndapewa, John, Onesmus 
Middle Row: Eino, Siskko, Miina, Kristine, Katrina, Selma, Prodesia 
Front Row: Jason, Teopolina 
Remember, it’s winter here now, that’s why they’re all wearing jackets and sweaters. Also, classes aren’t normally this small. It’s just because we’ve divided up the grade 12 classes for English. Sera gets all the ones who are good at English, Mr. Iipito gets all the ones who struggle with English. Altogether, 12B has 36 learners.

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