The anticipation of another school year came wafting into our home last week, packed into two shopping bags full of supplies — fresh boxes of No. 2 pencils, perfect pink erasers, unblemished folders, glimmering glue sticks and a short stack of tissue boxes.
Our soon-to-be-fifth-grader opened a slick, black, spiral notebook. She was drawn to it because “it looks like something a reporter would use,” she said. She ran her hands over the clean, smooth pages.
“I like the way it feels,” she said. “It’s like anything can happen, and then when you start writing, the pages kind of fill themselves. There’s so much potential.”
Then she closed her eyes and breathed in the freshness of the pristine notebook.
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There’s something powerful baked into the smell of brand-new school supplies — something full of infinite promise.
And even the aromas of the classrooms and hallways of the school itself can create and, eventually, trigger a cascade of memories the other senses can’t match.
I have visited hundreds of schools throughout the country during my career, and, with a few exceptions, they all pretty much smell the same.
Every time I step into a school cafeteria 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 potato chips, a Ho Ho and a can of lemon-lime soda wrapped in foil. His mother must really love him to send him off with such an awesome lunch.
In the corner, George the janitor stands ready with his mop, a bucket and a box of sawdust, just in case one of those nervous stomachs decides to heave back its contents.
Over in the dank and musty gym, the woody smell of the floor mixed with odoriferous canvas high-tops and sweat-soaked cotton reminds me of that one glorious afternoon in middle school when we actually won a basketball game — the only one in three years of losses.
In the kindergarten room, the salty aroma of Play-Doh and the dusty scent of construction paper take me back to a time when I was 5. 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 the hallways always remind me of when my classmates and I would shuffle in after recess shrouded in a cloud of Indian summer humidity with a distinct whiff of asphalt. I call it “Eau de Playground.”
But there’s nothing that would instill in me a greater sense of anticipation and creative potential than the sweet bouquet of an unmarked Big Chief tablet and a freshly sharpened pencil.
The smell of school is in the air. Imagine the possibilities!
To reach Jim Cosgrove, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.