- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 May 23, 2003 

Ringing in Reality: "Last Bell" isn't what it used to be

"Last Bell" has become a "fashion show off" some say.

Today (May 23) another tradition in Armenia was marked, as "Last Bell" signaled the end of school.

Traditionally on this day, students dress in their best clothes, arm themselves with flowers and hold special ceremonies in their schools to remember the day. Young girls wear white aprons upon which their classmates write their well wishes or fond farewells.

For those finishing 10th form, Last Bell means entry to adulthood.

These days in Yerevan, the tradition has taken on another color. Last Bell has become big business, akin to the United States tradition of Prom Night. Gifts, extravagant outfits, fancy restaurants and limousine rides are becoming the norm. For some, that trend has turned the day of celebration into a day of alienation and embarrassment.

Fifteen year old Gegham Muradyan won't be participating at his Last Bell party, because to do so would require spending about $150, a sum his family can only dream of.

"You have been studying for 10 years impatiently waiting for the Last Bell and after that you don't take part in it as you haven't got money," Gegham says. "Who decided that Last Bell is only for eating and giving presents?"

He stopped talking and quickly left the room as he didn't want to show his tears. His mother says Gegham hasn't been attending school for a month "as they are regularly rehearsing Last Bell ceremony, talking about upcoming parties and about clothes they are going to wear and cars they are going to drive that day.

Once a tradition that marked the end of childhood, it now marks the beginning of adult life.

"Last week we called in an ambulance two times because as a result of his worries and hurts he had terrible headaches and nervous system disorder when his limbs turned numb."

Last year a teenage girl at School No. 77 committed suicide two days before Last Bell. The family lived across the street from the school and their daughter hanged herself on the balcony in view of her classmates.

Before taking her life she wrote a note to her parents saying she did not want to become a burden to them. She knew, she said, that they could not afford Last Bell, so she took her life so they wouldn't borrow money.

There are many children who find themselves in such a situation on the edge of their new life. Still, Last Bell is becoming more market scheme than tradition.

Expenses for the Last Bell ceremony start at $150 in the well-known schools of the city. At Puskin School some pay $200. In the remote schools of the city pupils can get by on $70 to $100 - still, three to four times the average Armenian official salary.

Out with simple dolma, in with elaborate cakes.

For that amount students get a rented hall, a class photograph and a party. But the most expensive cost has become gifts for teachers. Depending on whether a teacher's subject involves final exams, typical gifts range from flowers to gold chains. It is traditional to give the form master a gold diamond inlaid piece.

An added expense is a present for the school director. In many schools, classes have taken to giving $50 (per class) to their director. With four to five graduating classes, that makes Last Bell a lucrative day for directors of some schools.

An important part of Last Bell is concerts and ceremonies organized by schools. In times past, the students wrote their own programs and sketches. Now, however, some are hiring program directors and purchasing scripts.

"The greatest pleasure of the Last Bell ceremony is when children perform using their own strengths and create themselves," says teacher Rima Kerobyan. "It's ok if it isn't a performance of high-quality but when they create themselves it is always more touching and beautiful."

The celebration can cost up to $200 or more. Some families borrow money to pay for their children's participation.

Kerobyan says that today's celebrations have turned into a "dress-off and fashion show where everyone demonstrates luxurious clothes. Those who can't afford it, sit in some corner of the classroom and hardly hold back tears waiting until everything will be finished."

Decades ago, recalls journalist Arevik Avagyan, Last Bell was a different time.

"We prepared dolma," she says. "One of the class mates brought meat from somewhere and that part of dolma with meat we gave to our teachers. That was our party and it made us happy. Today the important part is the is dress-off ."

Some parents put themselves in debt to assure the child's participation in Last Bell.

"It happens only once in my child's life, that's why I borrowed money at interest for buying clothes, shoes and paying ceremony fee," says parent Nazely Saghatelyan.

Today children from outside regions also come by buses to Yerevan. Usually they make circles around Republic Square. But as it is under construction, they gather instead this year at the Institute of Manuscripts. Their capital is changing and so are their times.

According to Agnes
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Click to enlarge.


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