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For Whom the Bell Tolls: St. John's Seniors
Annapolis seniors making the celebratory climb up the McDowell Hall
stairway to ring the bell after turning in their senior essays.
Every year, the bell of McDowell Hall rings to mark a special occasion in the life of St. John's College. This Saturday, beginning at midnight, St. John's students will be celebrating one of the traditions of senior year: turning in their senior essays and marking their achievement by ringing the bell in McDowell Hall. Between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., 114 students will climb to the top level of McDowell Hall and ring the bell.
The day that essays are due, seniors bring their copies to the Print Shop for photocopying and binding. They then head off to the home of President Christopher Nelson for a party with one admission requirement: four copies of their completed senior essay. The deadline is midnight. Students write on works from the academic Program or gain permission to explore something different, such as a film or work of art. They are not asked to produce a research paper; instead students demonstrate a sustained performance in the liberal arts.
In accord with tradition, each senior gets to ring the college bell in the middle of the night. In past years, each senior rang the bell repeatedly: one peal for every page of their essay. In a compromise with local residents, the tradition has been modified, and each senior gets to ring the bell only once. (Each year, the college obtains special permission from Annapolis city government that exempts St. John's from the city's noise ordinance for this one hour.)
Ringing the bell is also not quite as romantic as it sounds: there is no rope to be pulled, but simply a button to push. Still, few seniors miss the opportunity.
Turning in the essay, however, is just the first part of each senior's graduation requirement. Between February and the end of April, students will sit for orals with a committee of tutors who will question them on their essay. These examinations—which are open to the public—represent the culmination of a student's learning at St. John's.