When I began school, I passed into another zone of discipline. The most prominent marker of that regime of control was not the corporeal form of the stern schoolmaster but rather, the sounds of a bell ringing. It was the aural code that dominated the next twelve years of my life, slicing up the school day into distinct slices of time, neatly parceling out portions for study and sometimes even play. The bell would ring, and we would file obediently into class; it would ring again, and the study of another subject would begin; and so on, till the final, merciful heralding of the end of school day rang out, ushering us toward the school buses that would take us back home.
But the boarding school bell regulated even more of my day. It rang first at 530AM, rudely hauling me out of bed, and sending me scampering to get changed and ready for morning tea, and from there on, it signaled again and again for physical drill, breakfast, chapel service, the start of classes, then the class periods, a short recess, classes again, lunch, sports periods, evening tea, evening prep, and then finally, lights out.
The boarding school bell rang the longest for chapel service; I never timed it, but I’m sure it was rung for at least a few minutes, its insistent notes traveling over the campus, summoning up schoolboys no matter where they were, sending them to kneel on their knees, sing hymns and pray. One morning, I was given the task of ringing the bell for chapel service; I took to the task with some gusto, pulling the rope hard and striving to add some dramatic flair to that weekday sound.
After school, the era of the bell seemed to come to an end. There were no bells in university, no bells in graduate school. Classes ended because professors and students checked watches and clocks; we were supposedly self-regulated and disciplined. But the bell made a return again when I began teaching at Brooklyn College, whose campus features a landmark clock tower.
Now, again, on my teaching days, I hear, as I have for the past twelve years, the sounds of a bell marking time, ushering students and professors alike into classrooms. I am supposedly the one doing the disciplining when it comes to the students, but the sounds of the clock tower discipline me too, regulating my teaching hours and urging me not to be late.
The sounds of the clock tower do not just regulate; they can calm as well. My campus is an urban one but it strives to construct an air akin to those situated in considerably more bucolic surroundings. The clock tower’s sounds, for whatever reason, aid it in this endeavor; they sometimes lend the campus a pastoral air it would not otherwise posses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find the ringing of the bell in the evenings the most calming of all: the day is done, and my walk home to my family can begin.
The sounds of a bell ringing are now, finally, considerably more benign than I had ever experienced them to be.