187. Bells

Edgar Allen Poe wrote about bells. So did John Donne: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Pavlov did some work with bells, and learned and taught us about conditioned responses. I sometimes like to think his dogs were secretly conditioning him to ring bells by salivating whenever he did it. Bells have been part of human society and culture for a long time. Cave dwellers probably discovered that loud sounds could be made by hitting certain objects, and those sounds were probably often useful, often musical. It’s ironic (pun intended) that so many years later, there are still people into heavy metal.
Schools used to have bells up on the top, which were rung when it was time to come to school. The bells were rung by people, and they echoed throughout the countryside, telling Tom Sawyer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and everyone else that it was time to get to school. When we figured out how to rig up bells that didn’t have to be rung by people, we started using bells a lot more. Bells in elementary school told us when to come into school, when we were late, when to go to lunch, when to come back inside after lunch recess, and when to go home. In junior high and high school, bells told us when each period started and ended.
I once worked in an elementary school that was run by the teachers. The principal was a leader, but not the way principals are usually leaders. He was not our boss. We, in a way, were his boss. It was refreshing. One of our decisions, that year, was not to use bells. We decided that bells were intrusive, and caused unnecessary stress. We all had watches, and knew how to tell time. We didn’t need bells.
If you walked into the school, you were immediately impressed by the peaceful atmosphere. The absence of bells was not the only reason for this atmosphere, but it certainly contributed. Children got involved in projects, and there wasn’t any mechanical tyrant to tell them to get uninvolved. We did have some things scheduled, like lunch, special events, and dismissal, but we didn’t need bells.
This subject is not one of my major crusades. I just thought you’d like to know that bells, which we take for granted in schools, are not inevitable. It is possible to eliminate the loud alarum bells, and doing so can make time flow nicely instead of jerk and jar. I challenge schools to try it. I offer the No-Bell Peace Prize to any school bold enough to give it a try.

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