The real Mannequin Challenge was the ‘freeze’ bell

Maybe by now you’ve seen the latest video craze – the so-called “Mannequin Challenge”  – in which large numbers of people, usually dancing or running in every direction, suddenly stop and turn into latter-day pillars of salt.
 
It’s so funny, as they say, that I forgot to laugh, but the Internet videos have gone viral. Football and basketball teams have done it. High school bands have stopped tooting their alma maters and fight songs in mid-trombone slide.
 
I don’t really get it, but the Mannequin Challenge did carry me back to my childhood at St. Leo the Great School in Gentilly, where a Dominican nun’s idea was a half-century ahead of its time.
 
Dominican Sister Mary Edmund Gibson was our principal. She’s now 85 and living with the Dominican Sisters of Peace in Columbus, Ohio, and she’s as sharp as the Ohio State Buckeye with the tuba who gets to dot the “i” in “Ohio” during halftime performances.
 
Sister Mary Edmund can’t recall the exact details, but St. Leo the Great had a far more purposeful form of the Mannequin Challenge in the 1960s.
 
At the end of every recess period – remember, there was “little” recess and “big” recess – Sister Mary Edmund or one of her sisters would step out to the front entrance of the school on Abundance Street and ring a large, brass bell twice, about 10 seconds apart.
 
The first bell was the “freeze bell,” where, just as in the Mannequin Challenge, everyone froze in mid-step, which, of course, led to some exaggerated poses by the boys playing keep-away in the schoolyard and trying to grab the girls’ attention.
 
The second bell signaled it was time to silently get into line, a line that by rule and generational tradition had to be as straight as the starched hemline of Sister Mary Edmund’s white habit.
 
Forget the Mannequin Challenge. The “freeze bell” rocked, and it more than fulfilled its God-given purpose.
 
“I do remember the freeze bell,” Sister Mary Edmund said last week, laughing. “I don’t know if I brought it in or just continued what we had been doing.”
 
It was sheer sister genius.
 
“The concept was that you actually got the children to stop what they were doing and slow down before they moved into the assembly line or the line for classes,” Sister Mary Edmund recalled. “The children knew when the freeze bell rang, everybody had to stop, even if they were hanging from a tree. It was great because the children were priceless.”
 
They say God writes straight with crooked lines, but not at St. Leo the Great. Whichever class formed the straightest line on Abundance Street would be selected to enter the cafeteria first for lunch.
 
The judge was none other than Sister Mary Edmund, who carried a bullhorn but had a way of not sounding like Gen. Patton. She was always smiling, and she never wore a green helmet.
 
Sometimes, a student in Class 5A would complain that Class 5B got into lunch first even though 5A’s line was straighter.
 
“That’s, OK, honey,” Sister Mary Edmund would say in consolation. “Next time, I’ll bring you in first.”
 
Sister Mary Edmund was principal at St. Leo the Great for about seven years, and she loved it there. She also remembers how just after big recess, the students would file back silently into their classrooms.
 
They were soaking wet from the 90-degree heat – the classrooms had windows that could slide open and box fans above the door jams – and when the students recited the rosary, their shirts and blouses stuck to the back of their desks.
 
It was sweaty work, but there was always a sense that everyone was in it together. “Children need discipline,” Sister Mary Edmund said. “They can’t learn without it. If you have discipline, learning will follow.”
 
In an age before collaborative circles and multiple learning styles, Sister Mary Edmund had a few tricks to calm the fears or even the anger of the most disagreeable child.
 
“I would give them a good, loving, hard look,” she said. “And then I also used to count, ‘1 … 2 … 3’ and then say ‘Thank you!’ I loved them, and they knew I loved them.”
 
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached atpfinney@clarionherald.org.

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