Education Opinion

Smells Like School Spirit

By Susan Graham — June 30, 2008 3 min read
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School is out, and my students and my colleagues are reveling in summer.

Summer delights the eye with sunlight through the trees, fireworks on the Fourth, sunburned skin and sun-bleached hair. Summer resonates with the sounds of birds singing in the morning, children splashing and laughing in the midday, and fans softly whirring in the evening. Summer air is perfumed with the scents of spicy sweet petunias, fresh cut grass, and roasting meat and veggies on the grill.

Summer has almost, but not quite, begun for me.

I am on an extended contract, working an extra ten days at the beginning and the end of the school year. Our bustling district community of 1,000 adults is reduced to fifteen summer staff--three administrators, three teachers, two secretaries, one counselor, one bookkeeper, and the maintenance crew. But for those of us who work these extra days, the school has its own summer sensual delights.

The long halls of empty lockers open onto indistinguishable classrooms. Last month each room had its own distinctive character. Now they are uniformly neat, tidy, and sterile. The teachers’ desktops are clear of post-it notes, pens and papers. The bulletin boards are stripped, waiting expectantly for fall.

I can work for an hour hearing only the clatter of my keyboard, the ring of a telephone next door, and the occasional quiet slap of a single pair of sandaled feet down the hall. Sounds that would have never survived the cacophony of a school day now echo in empty space.

On summer mornings when I unlock the back door, it’s the smells I notice first. The aromas of pine scented cleaners and floor wax waft through the hallways of my school. I love that smell. It gives me the same good feeling that comes from a freshly cleaned house or a just-washed car. Things feel renewed, under control and ready for what lies ahead. Floor wax and Pine-Sol are reassuring, promising that in September there will be a fresh start in a familiar environment. My school smells like the security of home and the hope of a new beginning.

It occurs me that too many schools don’t offer those images, sounds and smells of anticipation and potential success. The windows are dirty, the walls are dingy, and the bathrooms have corners encrusted with grime. They have developed that moldering funk of damp ceiling tiles and outdated books that have set too long on undusted shelves. These other school buildings project an air of discouragement and hopelessness, like the odor of sour milk seeping from the dumpster at the back door of the empty lunchroom. When disarray and neglect assault the senses, I wonder about their impact on the students and teachers.

The influence of sensory stimuli has been on my mind this week because my TLN colleagues and I have been having an interesting discussion about distraction. It started with a chat about whether music or even background TV enhanced or impaired the concentration of our students or ourselves. There’s always been discussion of aural and visual stimulation, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about the olfactory stimuli. Smell is the first and most visceral of our senses. Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.

Pheromones are serious science, and allergic reactions to smells are increasingly a medical issue. While aromatherapy may be dismissed as New Age fluff and candle stores may be fads, smell is big business. We purchase the scent of fresh cotton, kiwi, sea breezes, wild ginger, fresh baked bread and animal musk in air fresheners, laundry detergents, shampoo, dog food, and a thousand other products.

So tonight I’m wondering, in my FACS teacher mode (which can lead me down some strange hallways indeed): Is my response to a freshly cleaned and waxed hall an inherent or learned response?

Were the fragrances in Pine-Sol, Clorox and Future floorwax chosen because research had determined they would generate positive feelings in me and others? Does the smell of food in my FACS classroom support retention and trigger recall?

Will we ever identify all the variables that influence a child’s interaction with school? Does anyone doubt that a fusty-smelling old school impacts student learning? If there are scents associated with failure, can we define the smell of success?

If we ever define the smell of a successful school, how long will it be before someone tries to market it like new-car smell? How long before someone suggests it as a solution-in-a-can, the perfect thing to mask the festering odor of neglect and decay?

I mean, we’ve already had the solution-in-a-box. The solution-on-a-disk.The solution-in-a-law. Anyone up for a spritz of School-Smell-So-Good?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.