The Old School Bell: a formative symbol

Every time I hear a school bell, it grounds me to who I once was, who I became, and therefore, who I now am. Like a mother’s heartbeat, it fills me with a sense of security. It once gave me the boundaries of my school day: asserting itself vigorously when we began at 8.45am, lowering its tone to a “silent bell” when we filed into the chapel, it shifted my mind from subject to subject during the day by demarcating the “periods”, releasing me temporarily to the tuck shop for maalu paan (fish roll), pol toffee (coconut candy) or bulto (a solidified treacly candy) during the “intervals”, and finally, when my mind was boggled and my body longed for release, it sounded freedom that sent us rushing out at 3.30pm to play cricket, rugby, marbles or simply ogle the girls at our sister school next door.

The bell summons formative images to mind: the breakup of fisticuffs and bloody noses out in the playground because we had to be ready for class, the dreaded Prefects walking the corridors looking for tell-tale signs of lawbreakers, the shrewd teachers who used the silences that the bell demanded to study our faces and file away those whom they believed would make it in life and those who would not, and therefore, those whom they should develop and those whom they should ignore.

The bell spelled reward and punishment. Reward came in releasing us to the playground during intervals and after school; it came in switching us to our favourite periods or ushering in the teachers we loved the most. Reward was being dispatched by the bell to the library, where the world of books awaited those who looked beyond, and where a cocoon of hushed gossiping would envelop those who played the system. Punishment came when you missed the bell and had to take that “long walk” to the office to get a late chit. Punishment also came when the glorious bell rang at day’s end and those who had not done their work knew that it signaled detention, not freedom.

The bell spelled separation: on my first day of school, as my mother let go of my hand and I entered the gates, I sensed that my life had changed forever. It rang during moments of prayer when Catholics separated from non-Catholics, the latter to play and master the art of marbles and other sports, the former to pray in the chapel seeking divine intervention so that their non-Catholic colleagues would not improve their game and beat them.

Bells have existed since ancient times and in many civilizations and have comforted us in times of despair, accompanied us in battle and in revelry, announced births, deaths, marriages, and called us to worship. Even today, when I hear that sound, be it a church bell or a VIA Rail train pulling into the station, it takes me back to that most significant of chimes – my old school bell.