Originally created 08/16/98

Memories are evoked by smells



This is the week when youngsters head back to class.

You might go, too.

Maybe not in person, but in your head, because you can remember school.

Twelve-plus years will do that to you. (Maybe a few more for some of you.) And you remember it best by the way it smells.

I noticed this the first time I dropped my son off at day care and happened to walk by an open supply cabinet.

The scent hit me so strongly, my head snapped around with a what-was-that whiplash, almost before I realized what it was.

It looked like stocked shelves of tablets, construction paper, paste and crayons.

But to me it was first-grade, maybe second. And I suddenly worried that I might be caught chewing gum.

School smells do that to you.

I would be willing to bet that any one of us could be blindfolded, driven around for an hour or so, then led -- still sightless -- into a grammar school hallway and immediately know where we were because of what we smell.

It changes, too.

Elementary school is different from, say middle school. It has more of a "kid smell" to it.

Middle school is a little cleaner.

High school is something different -- a combination of painted cinder blocks, human apprehension and that sweeping compound they spread on the hall floors to collect all the dust when they clean up after-hours.

A school lunchroom will always smell like ... a school lunchroom. I don't know why, but it does.

Restaurant cafeterias might serve the same function, but they don't smell the same. Maybe it's the high starches.

A high school locker room has its own distinctive smell, too. Not pleasant, but not as bad as a high school restroom, which, as I recall, always smelled like cigarette smoke.

There even are smells you don't smell anymore. Like mimeograph paper.

Kids today think we have always had copying machines. They'll never know the ritual we shared long ago.

The teacher, like some priestess of secret knowledge, would solemnly ask the group to prepare itself ("Clear your desks."), and then she would slowly but deliberately pass out the tests on mimeograph paper.

Yours came right to you, the paper soft but unwrinkled.

And before you even read the questions you so dreaded, you would put the paper to your nose and breathe the bluish-purple type. There is nothing else like that smell -- Xerox meets Clorox.

I'll admit it. I inhaled.

We always joked that it was dangerous to sniff the mimeograph paper.

Maybe it was.

A generation familiar with its subtle cleaning-fluid-like odor went on to grow its hair long, experiment with drugs and name its children after flowers.

And one day they took those children to classrooms of their own and the cycle began anew. Know why?

School smells.



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