An Odoriferous Education

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2010,
Winter 2010
Original Images:



Author: Tom Dodd

A before-standardization memoir: We learned more than our teachers suspected in the schools of our childhood.

“School stinks!” we proclaimed when we wanted to say something unkind about our childhood headquarters, and indeed, the schools of our past did have a unique smell about them. One wonders if today’s tots enjoy the same sensory experiences we knew in schools that had wooden floors, slate blackboards, wet plaster walls, oak trim moldings, cork bulletin boards, coal and/or steam heat, and windows that actually opened. And we had those long cords on the window shades that could be tied into hangman’s knots! Today’s kids just have iPods.

Our teachers sometimes accused us of “not paying attention” but, in reality, we paid attention to far more than they realized. We saw, heard, tasted and smelled everything that was going on. For some unexplained reason, our library paste was laced with mint flavoring, but the teachers warned us not to eat it. We ate it anyway. We never used “library paste” in the library; only in the elementary classrooms.

Mimeograph ink was so delicious that, when the teacher handed out new papers (“Take one for yourself and pass them back!”), it was the custom to bury our face in the top sheet and inhale deeply. Long before we heard that Morning Glory seeds had a hallucinatory effect, we were convinced there was some magical quality in the smell of that purple mimeo ink. In those days, “purple” was an exotic color, only to be used by “fancy ladies.” That was long before rip-stop nylon backpacks in purple, pink and chartreuse.

A faint odor of peanut butter & jelly wafted from the lockers in the corridor. In some spots it was mixed with the gentle hint of urine. Old, forgotten sandwiches sometimes mixed into a potion of ingredients nearly unrecognizable by semester’s end. The bright pink deodorizer cakes in the bathroom urinals smelled worse than the smells they were trying to cover up, but they were fun to pee on.

Old books in the library had a musty, mysterious quality about them. The giant dictionary on a reading stand had alphabetized thumbholes on the side and, when you riffled the gold-edge pages with your thumb, the odor of antiquity wafted clear over to the kid doing homework across the table. These were the most popular reference materials available to us, and contained most of the banned words that we had been wondering about. They were easy to find; these pages had been opened so regularly that just placing the book on its spine would cause it to open to the favorite sections. We had to wash our hands after handling those smelly, old books, but it was worth it.

Wood pencil shavings had an “up north” aroma about them but, when mixed with graphite from pencil sharpeners (grinders), they made a dirty mix of pine pitch and acrid chemicals that we were sure were poisonous. At least it killed the plants on the windowsill.

Soft, pink pencil erasers were a “smellifluous” addendum to childhood - until you brushed the crumbles off the page when they mixed with the former pencil marks. Then they were a minor-grade poison. Art Gum erasers were the best crumbles to collect. You could chew on them too, but we did not swallow. Those green or gray kneaded erasers looked like chewing gum, but tasted terrible.

Rubber cement was voted the most volatile smell in the classroom and painting it on your cheek or forearm and then squeezing it together when nearly dry made the most believable facsimile of a terrible scar. Walking around with a severe limp added to the wounded-soldier-affectation and sniffing the cement reminded us to stay in character for maximum effect.

Airplane glue came later, and we quit destroying our brain cells just in time to get into college. Most of our projects started out soberly but became more sloppy and disorganized as time went on. We never understood what caused that and blamed it on our short attention spans. Imagine a skillfully constructed airplane fuselage with wads of wrinkled tissue paper hanging off the tail. That’s the “designer” taking a nap face-down on his desk. (“Fuselage?” There’s a word we have not seen since the days of Willow Run!)

The custodian dumped a sweeping compound on the floor and pushed it around with a four-foot-wide dust mop in an effort to collect the dirt without sweeping the dust up into the air. The compound seemed to be a mix of reddish sawdust and some kind of sweet-smelling oil. When the custodian was on call with the “slop bucket,” that usually meant there was a “throw-up” somewhere and the corridor did not get dusted for another hour. Students could volunteer to dust for the custodian, but no one ever volunteered to slop the vomits - even though the wringer on the slop pail was great fun to play with. Throw-ups were a common - but still surprising - smell in the corridors. No matter what a sick kid had eaten earlier, it always smelled like a mixture of orange juice and tomato juice. Who do you know who has TWO glasses of juice for breakfast? Today, “throw-up” is a term used by graffiti artists. Vomits are just called vomits now.

When contractors repaired the school’s roof, we collected their droppings and chewed on tasty chunks of warm, black tar. The flavor was a lot like Beeman’s Pepsin chewing gum and the blackness made our teeth look whiter.

Gym lockers gave us the worst and probably most memorable smells. In the days when only women used deodorants, we brought our own towels to school. Some days there were only two or three “acceptable” towels available from donors in gym class, and that was enough to convince most athletes to take theirs home for washing. Long after our gym clothes were washed, the mildew smell remained since not everyone had the same tolerance level for the stench of moldy towels, shorts, shirts and jock straps. It seems the acrid odor had seeped into the steel of the lockers, never to dissipate.

Orange peelings left over from lunch could be placed in the bottom of a gym locker to mask the smell of athletic appurtenances, but they had to be removed after two weeks - or the fruit flies made their presence known to the coach. We were surprised to see that orange turned to dark green in two weeks and most of the smell was gone by the time that green color appeared.

Milk cartons didn’t seem to have much smell about them at first, but if kept in the back of your desk with a few inches of liquid in them for a week or so, they soon joined the other mysteries of that dark space as beacons to direct you to your overdue homework.

Dixie cups were a much anticipated school treat and, when the ice cream was gone, it was still satisfying to keep sucking on the tiny lozenge-shaped wooden spoon that had been stuck to the top of the original product. If you were able to save the spoon until the bus ride home in the afternoon, it was a clear signal to everyone else that your class had a treat… and perhaps they didn’t. Not much flavor was left three hours after the ice cream was gone, but the wet wood had a naturalistic and subtle flavor that lasted long into the day.

Some of the most exotic smells came from our four-hundred-year-old virgin Latin teacher, Miss Virginia Dowdy. On warm days she emitted a tangy sour-milk smell. That was the signal to take up a collection for her annual Christmas present: a blue glass vial of Evening-in-Paris perfume. The larger bottle would last until near the end of second semester as Miss D slathered the not-too-subtle hints of a continental lifestyle across her entire torso.

The high school social studies teacher smelled equally wonderful. Mr. Schaeffer wore the most intriguing tan leather sport coat––often with a Real Bow Tie (not the clip-on kind). Leaning over his desk with a question, a student could get close enough to smell the leather and maybe even briefly touch the softness of the former bovine. Such brave and intimate inspection also reinforced the suspicion of other smells coming from this dapper professor: tiny bits of Sen Sen tried (unsuccessfully) to hide the fact that he smoked in the boiler room between classes, and Listerine antiseptic sometimes dribbled from the corners of his mouth. Schaeffer kept a big bottle of the volatile mouthwash in his largest desk drawer and, as there was no sink in which to spit it out, he swallowed it. He was always in his best mood for the class that met the first hour after lunch. One big bottle usually lasted a week.

Similarly, the Home Economics staffer sipped on the giant-size bottle of vanilla extract. She was one smart cookie and always jolly and friendly.

School students of an earlier age could literally “follow their noses” to a more sensory education. Maybe we could apply for a grant to open a new charter school to reinvigorate the “stinky education” we experienced before standardized testing took the senses out of learning.

Addendum by Robert Fox: “Oh yeah, and I remember the smell of the asphalt playground. Seemed like there was always some kid four years older than me who thought I needed another taste. The Catholic school paved the playground so it could be used as a parking lot on Sunday - and there was less mud tracked around. And then there was blood - so much blood. You see, I didn't like fighting, but I was big for my age and someone was always thinking I'd be a good foil for testing manhood. I had a rock jaw, but a glass nose - just a touch and my nose would gush. It became a deterrent. Those bullies with white shirts and ties - as soon as my nose bleed started, I'd grab the assailant and hug them - making certain as much of their white shirt turned scarlet red as possible. They looked gut-shot and I'd spend the remainder of the day with a head full of blood clots draining down my throat. Then there was the taste of dirty, salty snowballs. They stung twice, like a razor burn when they hit you in the face, and later when we got the paddle for throwing them.”

Scratched onto the upper-left-hand side of the chalkboard, outlined and labeled “Save” would be the daily vocabulary list with the notice “They’re going to be on the final exam.” So, if you are up to it here is your list!

Today’s vocabulary list:
Aroma, Bouquet, Fetor, Fragrance, Funk, Odor, Odorus, Odoriferous or Odiferous, Redolence, Reek, Scent, Stink, Whiff. “They’re going to be on the final exam.”

(Tom Dodd is a retired teacher, historian and author and is a regular contributor to the Gleanings. He is also the author and editor of the Depot Town Rag.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: A typical early classroom with wooden floors, slate blackboards, oak trim moldings, and windows that actually opened.

Photo 2: Every day we would have a new vocabulary list on the blackboard.

Photo 3: Gym lockers gave us the worst and probably most memorable smells.