It was the last speech of the commencement exercises, the obligatory talk given by an unknown member of the school board. The graduates were fidgety waiting for their diplomas and freedom. The audience was watching the clock for the event to be over and celebration dinners to begin. It was the talk where the majority of those in attendance were now on Facebook or texting on their cell phones. Somewhere, in my peripheral hearing, I heard the speaker recant her love of the first day of school and the smell of a new box of pencils and the flood of good memories that still rushed over her when she smelled new pencils. Looking over the group of extremely diverse students, the majority who had graduated against tremendous odds, I thought to myself, “Well they may have been sniffing something back in September, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t pencils.” And, I remembered the first rule of public speaking, “Know your audience.” Still, her words lodged themselves in my brain and I occasionally think of them when a smell transports me back across the years to my “first days of school.”
Smell is the most magical of memory makers. The nose, it seems, never forgets. All the summer days of childhood are contained in a smell of new cut grass and summer thunderstorms. The aroma of fresh baked bread can comfort us. Memories of grandparents rush over us when we enter damp cellars filled with bottles of fruit. Conversely, the angst of adolescents is carefully preserved generation after generation in the odor of a gym locker room. Buried creativity can be reawakened with a whiff of tempera paint or a new box of Crayola Crayons. The smell of sawdust takes you back to stern warnings of severed appendages in shop class or catch a whiff of formaldehyde and a dead frog appears before your eyes.
So if the halls of old Draper Park School still elicit so many memories for the citizens of Draper, what smells today will flood the minds of those walking the halls of the new Corner Canyon high. Will students of today reading Harper Lee’s Night Watchman on their Kindle be transported back to junior English the way we are when we open To Kill a Mockingbird in a musty, used book store? Probably not, but maybe the odor of new carpet and wet paint will stir a memory someday that will bring back memories of being one of the first students in the new Draper Park Middle School. The smell of Styrofoam will someday bring a smile to a Millennial face as they remember the first laptop they received for graduation before heading off to college.
While we smile or wince when we catch a whiff of yesterday, the most important thing is we head back to school so we can move forward into the future. The smell of new athletic shoes and backpacks, dry erase markers and boxes of Papa John’s pizza after a foot ball game will bury themselves in the minds of today’s students. As budding artists open new tubes of paint and aspiring musicians practice late into the night in garages where the subtle fumes of gas from the lawnmower permeate the air, memories are being stored. And hopefully, whether they are homemade or Otis Spunkmeyer from Costco, the waft of warm chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven will remind a new generation—that at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s always nice to come back home.