Elementary School Smells

By Joe Rector

Grandson Madden spent a few days with us not long ago. Having him around brought life to our otherwise mundane existence; even Sadie, our dog, was beside herself with excitement. What I noticed most of all about Madden is that little boy smell. It wasn’t bad; instead, it was a mixture of sweat, hormones, and just a little dirt, all the good things that go into making a boy. For some reason, Madden’s presence also caused me to reminisce about grammar school and the smells that were always so prominent there.

The first things that came to mind were the cleaning supply odors. Each morning, the restrooms were sparkling. The toilets and urinals had been doused with a healthy portion of cleanser. The stuff was so strong that it actually burned the nose with each breath taken. To this day, I still associated the smell of that particular solution with a completely clean area.

The smell of soap and paper towels were also strong. After using the restroom, boys sidled up to the sinks and pumped the dispenser. They washed hands better than at any other time because doing so took just a few extra minutes out of the class period. A fistful of towels yanked from the box on the wall dried the water and left over suds. What was left was a mixture of paper and soap scents that just didn’t blend too well.

In any school, the smell of vomit wafted through the halls at least once each day. That pungent odor was enough to make other students’ stomachs churn, and on more than one occasion a student produced a sympathy throw up. Teachers or custodians worked to clean the mess before an entire class was wiped out with illness.

A classroom after recess filled with some noxious smells. Little boys’ perspiration caused their hair to be wet and their clothes to stick to the skin. A coating of dirt on hands and shoes mixed with that sweat to produce a thick, heavy smell. The shavings in a full pencil sharpener added to the stink. It lingered well into the afternoon. Sometimes the smell of soured milk that had spilled on jeans during morning break offended the noses of students. Only opening the windows (yes, classrooms had windows that opened back then) could dissipate the smell.

In those earlier times, the smells from the cafeteria rose from the bottom floor and filled every classroom. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, fish, and lima beans were just a few of the foods that released their scents.

On one occasion, the smells of food were so strong that our mouths watered as we thought of the feast that awaited us. Teachers made us walk in single file, but we students almost broke into a run to arrive in the cafeteria. There the aroma was even stronger, and we eagerly approached the serving counter. To our dismay, we discovered that the food that smelled so wonderful was liver! All of us were broken-hearted because we weren’t about to eat the stuff. Still, the smell of that food was fabulous.

Wintertime introduced black smoke from a coal furnace and the sulfur smell associated with that fuel. That odor was even thicker as the heat seemed to consume all the fresh air in the building. On days when the entire school reeked with the stink of burning coal, a few minutes outside in frigid temperatures were preferred.

My sense of smell has been hijacked over the years. Cigarettes and nose sprays are the culprits. These days, I infrequently catch a sniff of some old time scent. Others no longer exist because the products that emitted the no longer are in use. Now, I rely on my mind’s nose to recall the scents of youth and education. Each time I inhale, another youthful memory comes back.

 

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