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Issue 65: The Smell of School May 4, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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pink_bookWhile cleaning out some files the other day, I came across an old article by Michael Paige in that strange blue-violet type made by a ditto machine. I realized that part of the educational value of the piece, in addition to whatever Michael had written, was its iconic value as a representation of the culture of education in the baby boomer years. Stacy, my incredibly bright and competent graduate school intern, had never smelt the dittoed quiz passed overhead to her by the student seated in front of her, or walked past the principal’s office where the dittos were being run off for whatever class needed them. It was the smell of school, though the odor has long left the Michael Paige article. I know because I automatically lifted the page to my nose. Nothing. Only then did I start to read the article and appreciated the fact that this ditto had been very neatly typed. There were no obvious remnant scratches that signaled a corrected typo. I felt like a curator from Antiques Roadshow, with an impressive knowledge of some ancient technology.


Jaipur picnic 1991

Much of our experience of cultures and places is sensory, and the sense of smell is one of the strongest ways we experience a place.  My memories of India include the smokey, spicy smells that I sometimes discover lingering in fabric or clothing made in India. And there are emotional memories that this scent evokes, much stronger than the memories evoked by photos like this one, taken in Jaipur late in 1991. The colorful saris against the beige ground are striking, but if I could smell the burnt edges of the naan bread baking inside those barrels again, I would feel myself taken back to that picnic on the mountain.

When people have trouble adapting to a new country and culture, or have trouble accepting immigrants moving in next door, they often complain most strongly about body odors, cooking odors, or the cologne that they may use.  An American host mother once told me about her dilemma of feeling nauseated at the family dinner table by the smell of the Sri Lankan exchange student’s cologne. She didn’t want to say anything to the boy, but at the same time she was so overcome by the odor that she could hardly eat her dinner. It wasn’t enough for her to know that this was just one of those cultural differences.

As Rachel Herz pointed out in her book, The Scent of Desire

“Our responses to the scents of one another profoundly influence almost all our social interactions and relationships. The feelings that emerge when we catch a whiff of someone else can range from unconditional love to repugnance and prejudice.” (Chapter 6)

So what is a host mother to do when she wants to love a newly arrived exchange student but is repulsed by his cologne? In this case, the host mother managed to communicate her feelings without perhaps wanting to do so, but she seemed less able to interpret the students feelings when he seemingly spontaneously stopped wearing the cologne after a few days.  For her, it seemed that a problem was thankfully and quickly resolved.

Although this happened decades ago, I would not be surprised if the scent of that particular cologne still leaves traces in their minds that would immediately recall for both the host mother and the student the way they each felt in those first days together.