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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

TTLG: The Dartmouth Bells

During his final few weeks at Dartmouth, former Mirror editor Street Roberts ’24 reflects on his growth at the College through his relationship with the Baker bells.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

Bong. Bong. Bong. The Baker bells thunder outside my freshman dorm room in Wheeler Hall. Half asleep, I roll over in bed and reach down to the ground to check my phone: 8:30 a.m. Ugh. The clanging of the bells interrupts my reprieve from a socially-distanced freshman year. I still have an hour until my 9:30 a.m. alarm blares, and even longer until I have to log on to my accelerated multivariable calculus class on Zoom. There, the professor will impassively ask questions, and the disinterested faces of my peers will remain on mute. 

The bells continue their irritating chime, each one marking another second in the misery of my freshman fall at Dartmouth amid a global pandemic. With each strike of the bell, the thoughts in my head — of finding friends and a home in the middle of these woods — begin to swirl, faster and faster. I lie on my bed, paralyzed, waiting for someone to pull me out of my blankets. But we have to remain six feet apart according to the College’s COVID-19 policies — and no one else is allowed inside my three-person double dorm room. The empty beds next to me serve as a constant reminder: “You are all alone.” 

I think back to the day before, of trying to speak to someone I met in the hallway, someone who could be a friend. He asks me my name. I open my mouth: S-s-s-s-s. Fuck. I can’t get it out. S-s-s-s-s. My mouth fails to cooperate, shackled by my stutter. Worse, the mask hides my tense lips, stuck on that “s.” All this person in front of me can hear is silence, and his widened eyes signal his intrigue. It’s a better reaction to my stutter than many of those I meet, who laugh or deliver a “What are you doing?” or even actively impersonate me. Still, my face grows hot and beads of sweat drip down my back, drawn forth by the humidity of the fourth floor hallway. When I finally push the sounds of my name out, he responds with his name and a warm “It’s nice to meet you.” But when I return to my room five minutes later, I feel as hopeless as ever. 

Later that week, I sit down in a dorm room with more than 10 other students — my first, and only, major violation of the COVID-19 rules that limited unscheduled gatherings to, at most, nine people. I introduce myself to someone who recently walked in the room, and they meet my stutter with no reaction, only a smile and their name once I finish speaking. For a moment, it’s college, at least the version I had in my head before I arrived on campus. Then, a loud knock on the door and a voice: “Safety and Security. Open up.” Two days later, I receive a call at 6 p.m. asking me to depart campus by noon the next morning. The woman on the phone interrupts me as I struggle to explain the circumstances. She barrels over my stuttered words, and I feel voiceless once again. I officially leave my freshman fall dorm at 11:38 a.m., and when I try to re-enter to use the bathroom, the card reader blinks red against my student ID. The College can’t even wait for the bells to strike noon. 

In the spring, I sit in my room, waiting for a friend to text me back about going to Pine Park. I think about walking outside, but a scene of introducing myself to a stranger and being met with a quizzical laugh rattles around my head. For an hour I sit, listening to the bells chime and the sounds of people laughing and walking outside my new freshman spring room in North Massachusetts Hall. Those racing thoughts creep up again, this time calling out: “Other people are having fun. You aren’t.” The bells wake me up early again the next morning, long before my alarm has the chance. 

Sophomore year, I live in a four-person quad in Mid Massachusetts Hall, where my window continues to magnify the bells’ echoes. During the winter, I start to meditate each day. The daily practice helps limit the thoughts of inadequacy that so often consume me — a need to be productive and subsequently self-loath when I am not. In striving to remain present, I seem to speak more freely. But every so often, the bells interrupt my meditation. During their chimes, I feel a pit in my stomach grow with each passing strike of metal against metal. I fixate on their droning even after it subsides. 

More than a year later, after one off term and another spent studying abroad in Barcelona, I return to campus for my junior year spring. Renewed after time spent outside the Dartmouth bubble, I lug my blue, flower-spotted suitcase — which could rip at any moment — up the stairs of Hitchcock Hall. I finally make it to my room and drop my suitcase on the floor with a thud. When I look up, I see Baker Tower and the bells, standing majestically in my line of sight. My roommate’s footsteps patter behind me, and I turn around. He smiles. “We’re so back,” he says. As we walk outside to eat, we chat about adventures in countries thousands of miles away from campus, and the stories flow smoothly from my mouth. I don’t notice the ringing of the 2 p.m. bells in the warm sun. 

When I was 13, my speech therapist asked me to draw a picture of my stutter. Until then, I had never thought to illustrate the impediment that left me crying, screaming and cursing at my mother as I recounted the struggles and teasing of any given day. It felt ugly, a demented beast that lived somewhere within me. I thought I would draw an actual monster. Instead, I drew a clock tower with a bell and below it, a guillotine, with a string attached to the minute hand. When the speech therapist asked me why I had drawn this image, I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t yet articulate the ticking in my head that grew louder and louder when my mouth, tongue and lips froze. I couldn’t explain the way the rest of the world seemed to accelerate around me as I remained stuck in place. I couldn’t detail the pain of watching the face in front of me react with surprise, maybe laughter, then pity, as my lips contorted during a moment of stuttering. Most of all, I couldn’t describe how I yearned to release the words during that moment, how I wished I could just force the word out and be free of the pain and embarrassment and attention that rings like clanging bells in my head. Unfortunately, pushing through a stutter only makes it worse. 

Now, living off campus, I rarely hear the bells in the morning. Instead, I hear the sound of wind blowing through trees and the occasional chirping of birds. A friend of mine remarked last week that living off campus reminded him that birds existed. On campus, it seems like the constant traffic deters them from staying for long. Or, perhaps it’s the sound of the bells that pushes them away. 

Earlier this week, I listened to my voice speak for 30 seconds on a popular local radio station as part of my capstone project with my Senior Design Challenge group. I sat overwhelmed. I didn’t say anything, besides a stunned “Wow.” But not because I couldn’t. I thought back to the 13-year-old boy who had drawn that image of the clock tower with its bells. I thought back to the freshman who sat in his room in Wheeler while the bells tolled mercilessly outside the window. I thought back to just a few weeks ago, when some girl I sat with at a dinner assumed my stutter was an act and decided to play along. I used to wish I could force the moments out from my life, along with the tick-tock that plays in my head and outside my old dorm room windows. But now, I see them more for what they are: a reminder of growth. When they appear, I try to notice them and then let them go, along with the sounds of the bells that used to paralyze my throat. Yes, they still arise every now and then, but now I find myself more often greeting them as an old friend. 

After graduation, I know I will miss the bells. When I hear them ring out for that final time, they’ll be a reminder of how far I’ve come.