Do you remember what school smelled like?
That’s an incredibly odd question to ask, I know. But it’s on my mind at the moment. My grade school had a particular smell to it. I couldn’t place it anywhere else.
The aroma that wafted into my nostrils when I stepped through the big glass entryway doors of our school was something I took for granted for 9 years. From Kindergarten through 8th grade, that smell was a part of my daily life for nine months out of every year.
The smell of books. The smell of book bags. The smell of, I don’t know, teachers? I really never knew where it came from, but I knew it was a part of the building itself.
At times, it was a comforting smell. I hated going to school every day, but that smell switched my School Brain on. It was the smell of the tables and chairs, the desks - heck, the floor.
I know it was a part of the building itself because it was always the strongest-smelling on the first day of school. Your nose would just pick up on that “Oh hey, it’s school time!” smell the second you pulled up in front of the school building.
I imagine the clouds of this smell just sat in the building all summer long - locked away, undisturbed, left to multiply in intensity like it were in some giant Tupperware container.
I hated grade school. And yet, I miss that smell.
I think when I was a kid growing up, I just was accessing so many different smells. My smell exposure level was always quite high.
Think about it: I played sports as a kid, so you have the smells of the basketball court, of other kids’ sweat. You have each school building’s individual smells (every school building had one). You’d have the smells of other kids and other people’s houses.
These are just smells I’m not accustomed to anymore.
In high school, you had the unmistakeable smell of the locker room, which of course for boys always smelled like something died in there and was rotting for all of eternity. That was pretty normal. My high school had a smell too, though it wasn’t as intense or memorable.
And of course, girls had smells. Some were good, some not. There are really specific brands of cheap perfume - and heck if I remember any of them or ever knew their names - that come wafting by me every so often and I’m immediately taken back to the days of high school.
Those smells remind me of the girls I used to love. The ones that - for better or worse (and mostly worse) - captivated me and my attention during those four years. They were smells that I longed to smell on a daily basis.
Now? They smell nice. They bring back memories, but that’s about it.
Even when I was a really little kid, I always associated memories to smells. I have a distinct memory of being at what was then known as Disney/MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida as a very young child. I even have the faint recollection that I was being pushed in one of those toddler strollers.
We were in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Show Spectacular! (its full, proper name) and I have a very, VERY distinct memory of the unique smell that registered in my nose that afternoon or evening. That was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years ago or more. And that smell sticks with me.
Not only that, but it’s a smell I can’t even bring back. I don’t know that I’ve ever smelled that aroma since that day, and it still hangs with me. I’ve been to Walt Disney World many times since then in my teenage and adult years.
Everything is still there. It’s Walt Disney Studios now. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Show Spectacular! is still there. But in my visits, that smell has disappeared. It will forever be attached to that memory - and the subsequent “Little Tommy screams in terror because the stunt show is too loud” memory.
I bet I was a real gem to take to this stuff as a kid.
Before you think that smells aren’t that important, and I’ve just spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words describing odd, nondescript smells, think about what you do on vacation.
Imagine you’re walking out onto the beach. You’re looking out over the ocean and you’re ready to relax. You’ve earned this vacation, and you’re about to enjoy every minute of it.
What’s the first thing you do?
Or you climbed/hiked up a mountain, and now you are standing at the top with a stunning view in front of you. You’ve earned this moment, and you want to enjoy it by taking it all in.
What’s the first thing you do?
You inhale through your nose. You take a deep breath and you sigh. The first thing you do when you want to enjoy a moment is take in the smell.
And if you think I’m overstating this fact, are there many things that frustrate you more than not being able to smell properly? When you’re congested, it’s stressful, frustrating, and exhausting.
So when you finally heal up, your congestion clears, and you’re ready to enjoy being healthy again… what’s the first thing you do?
Seeing a pattern here?
It’s amazing to me the things that we take for granted and the importance that they play. We don’t think about them because they are things we do all the time. We’re constantly smelling stuff, right?
But smells are the unsung hero of your memory. They are the Pete Best of the five senses. Nobody appreciates smell. And yet, I sat down to write this little piece and kicked it off with how my old grade school used to have a smell. Ten minutes later, I have a thousand words all about how different smells are attached to different memories.
Let your brain wander, and you might be surprised at what it finds.