Ringing the tower bells early yesterday was a post-midnight moment of truth for 93 seniors at St. John's College in Annapolis who had just handed in their senior essays.
The scene was more sedate than the neighboring Naval Academy's annual spring ritual of climbing the greased Herndon Monument. But then, "Johnnies," as the undergraduate liberal arts students are called, are generally known for their devotion to the life of the mind.
This midwinter night, however, was a time to be festive. Wearing a tiara and a black velvet dress with matching gloves, Elizabeth Durham, 22, said nothing less would do to mark finishing her paper on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. "I just wanted to wear something suitably formal," she said.
At the historic college where lawyer and national anthem lyricist Francis Scott Key was once valedictorian, the bell-ringing is seen as an intellectual coming-out party.
As philosophy and literature students said before they lined the staircases under the octagonal tower, ringing the bells one by one to represent the whole class is an important rite of passage for a class that began its freshman studies learning ancient Greek -- the better to read Homer and Herodotus.
Annapolis residents have been known to complain about the nocturnal bell-ringing, but city officials have been willing to let the tradition carry on in the state capital.
Senior Julie Sarowski, 24, described how much making the bells toll suddenly mattered to her. "I never thought of myself as a traditional person," she said. "But this is the culmination, what it's all about."
In the first step of this class ritual, the college president, Christopher Nelson, held a late-night party at his home several blocks from the college. Near the door, he and Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft accepted each senior's essay.
"This is their intellectual achievement, their lifework, in a certain sense," Nelson said as the dean checked off names from a list of 94. "The test will be how many of the 94 will be here today, and the question is how long midnight lasts."
Midnight was the deadline for every essay. But there were a few who kept their classmates and tutors worried and waiting until the last moments. So Nelson declared that midnight would be allowed to last longer than usual.
Eva Brann, a faculty member for 48 years, said of a missing student, "He's still thinking."
Like Nelson, she said this midnight hour was a high-water mark for learners. "This is supposed to be their masterpiece, once they have learned to read books, how to form opinions and how to express yourself."
The 20- to 40-page senior essay can focus on anything the student chooses after absorbing the "great books" curriculum the college adopted in 1937, a rigorous program that covers the unfolding of Western thought and civilization. College officials date the bell-ringing revelry to that era.
Founded in 1696 as King William's School, the college is one of the oldest in the United States. It became St. John's College in 1784, but echoes of its English character reverberate across the serene campus by the banks of College Creek. In more recent history, Nelson is a graduate of the Class of 1970 -- and his father, wife and son also are alumni, he said, all familiar firsthand with ringing the bells.
On a recent afternoon in a campus coffeehouse, four seniors took a break from their labors to reflect on what they had accomplished in the past several weeks.
Justin Lanier, 22, said he took as his topic "A Groundwork for the Mathematics of Morals." Janae Decker, 22, tackled Moby-Dick and wrote on "In Black and White: Demystifying Moby-Dick." And Tobin Herringshaw, 28, investigated the aim of tragedy in "Tragedy and Transformation in Aristotle's Poetics."
Erica Naone, 23, took on a seemingly simple task in her essay, "The Word and the Image: Definition of a Straight Line."
"It's about the tension between ancient and modern geometry across the centuries," she said. "Then it wanders into metaphysics and [asks,] `What is truth?'"
Along the way, she said, her essay explores the move from Euclidean geometry to non-Euclidean geometry as "an amazing leap to the edge of imagination."
On the other hand, Decker said she concluded there was no need to overanalyze Moby-Dick's characters as prophets, symbols, or in terms of good or evil: "Moby-Dick is just a whale, Ishmael is just a sailor and Ahab is just a captain."
Seniors were given a month of class-free time to work on their essays and confer with academic advisers. At yesterday's gathering, several said they were operating on a mix of caffeine, adrenaline, jubilance and party champagne that seemed to make their recent stress evaporate.
The last student to arrive at Nelson's house was Matt Reiner, who showed up about 1 a.m. He was cheered by classmates now free to return to campus and sound the bells as a complete unit. The 94th member of the class, who was absent, was given an extension, Flaumenhaft said.
As the president's party emptied out, Nelson said an important experience awaits each senior: a formal cap-and-gown oral exam by three faculty members for an hour in the King William Room, in which their essay arguments are analyzed.
Back on campus, that last step was far from their minds for the moment. The senior class essayists each pressed a button to make the St. John's College tower bells peal through the night sky. Ninety-three times.