Every time I step into a school cafeteria (which is easily 100 times a year) the acrid smells of sour milk, baked mystery meat, and bleachy cleansers swirl into an unpleasant olfactory gumbo that assaults my brain’s limbic system, somewhere near the hippocampus. That’s the spot where smells trigger memories.
Instantly I’m hurled back to third grade. I’m sitting at the lunch table nibbling on a crumby peanut butter sandwich and an apple, while my friend Steve inhales a “real” lunch of potato chips, a Ho-ho, and a can of Cragmont Lemon-lime soda wrapped in foil. His mother must really love him.
Over in the corner stands George the janitor standing ready with his mop and bucket and a box of sawdust, just in case one of those nervous stomachs decides to heave back its lunch.
Ahh…the smells of school send my mind reeling. Each room and each hallway prompts its own cascade of memories.
Over in the dank and musty gym – the woody smell of the floor mixed with rubber and leather and perspiration-soaked cotton reminds me of the single glorious victory we had in five years of elementary and middle school basketball.
In the kindergarten room, the distinctive aroma of Play-Doh, and Elmer’s glue, and the dusty scent of construction paper takes me back to a time when I was five, and my classmates and I sat with our eyes riveted to a tiny black-and-white television screen as we watched Apollo 14 splash safely back to earth.
And in early afternoon, in almost every classroom, nostrils are shocked to attention by the unique clammy bouquet of a gaggle of sweaty students fresh from recess. I’d like to bottle that scent and market it to retired teachers as “Eau de Playground.”
And then there are memories that trigger smells, like purple-inked hand-outs duplicated on ditto machines. Cool and still slightly damp as they come off the silver cylinder – there wasn’t a kid in my class who didn’t kill a few brain cells sniffing that irresistible chemical odor.
But the most hope-filled smells of all come from the supply aisles at the back-to-school sales.
Every August I’d joyfully inhale a stack of brand new school supplies that held infinite promise. There’s nothing that reeks of hope as an unmarked Big Chief tablet and an unblemished Trapper Keeper, or a freshly sharpened #2 pencil and a soft pink eraser. I’d cram what could fit into a sweet chemical-smelling plastic pencil bag with a zipper that still worked.
The smell of school is in the air. Think of the possibilities!