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OFF MY CHEST: The haunting school bell and painful dawn preps

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By OCHIENG’ OBUNGA

The school bell was one haunting object during my high school days.

While it was just a sound that marked the beginning and end of lessons during the day, and therefore a switch between liked and resented teachers, it was the worst enemy when it marked beginning of dawn preps.

We hated and feared the bell just as much as we did the principal.

There were days when we had moments to turn over in bed and wait for the boarding master to come shouting and hitting our beds with a wooden mop handle so we could get up and go for dawn preps; but the presence of the principal made students not sleep.

The principal would not come beating us like the boarding master did. No. Mr Okutoyi Oluanda would not do that. But he simply stood like a soldier on parade in the middle of the ‘highway’ that led to the tuition block. Students would rush out of the dormitory section heading to the classrooms. The few students who were in the classrooms by 4am would be busy noting down names of those present. Mr Oluanda would then collect the lists and go to his office for 15 minutes.

With the lists in hand, he would walk from class to class ordering those who were late to go to the assembly grounds. He was soft spoken but his words always came out as a stern warning. Latecomers spent the dawn preps at the assembly grounds where the boarding master would then punish them with heavy manual work, and, sometimes, they would get strokes of the cane before doing the work at five minutes to six o’clock. And remember the lists had not been confiscated. Daring to escape was unheard of.

Whenever we saw the principal in the school compound in the evening, we slept with one eye open. We slept with our school uniform on, except for shoes.

I remember one time a newly admitted Form One student slept in only a boxer. The poor boy found himself in class that way the following day at dawn. Some good Samaritan gave him a bedsheet with which to cover himself and save him from the biting cold.

One evening, I came up with a creative solution for getting rid of our worst enemy – the bell. It was the rainy season and going for dawn preps was like staring death in the face. If my plan succeeded, I’d escape the dawn prep the following day. If I didn’t escape it, at least dawn preps would begin late. And I knew the whole school would use the excuse that the bell did not ring to skip the preps. I talked myself into stealing the bell after night preps.

The bell was in the library hall, which doubled as a Form Two classroom. I extended my night preps as I waited for the lights in the hall to be switched off. When they were off, I waited for a little while longer to ensure no one else was around the area.

When I sneaked into the hall, I could not find the bell where it was always kept; yet, two hours earlier when I had visited the hall it had been there.

There’s no way the student time keeper would go away with the bell. I was convinced that someone else had already stolen it. I walked to the dormitory a happy boy.

As I entered the dormitory, I noticed that there was unusual excitement. Normally, and especially during such a rainy season, every second of sleep was precious. But on this night students were reluctant to go to sleep. Some walked along the aisle, some were engrossed in storytelling and laughing, some just sat on the edge of their beds staring at others. The lights were still on. I, like the other students, slept late that night.

We had barely shut our eyes to sleep when the deafening sound of a bell rang outside unceasingly, throwing the whole dormitory into a frenzy.

You should have seen the disappointment written on everyone’s face minutes later as we sat in class pretending to read. Someone who seemed to have been most angered at waking up checked the time and realised it was a few minutes past 3am–an hour earlier than the usual 4am when preps begin.

Much later, we heard about what had transpired. The bell had been stolen and the watchman reported it missing. The boarding master then offered an even bigger bell, with a more deafening toll.

We, however, never found out why it was rang at five minutes to three o’clock.

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