What should a school SMELL like?

bread.jpg

I walked into my son's kindergarten on Thursday for maybe the twentieth time, and it finally clicked: This whole place smells like a horrible cafeteria. Smells evoke a mood in a way that sights and sounds rarely do. Just this morning, walking down to my local coffee house, I strolled past an area clearly inhabited only minutes earlier by a smoker. The lingering scent of cigarette smoke triggered a half-dozen memories: smoking at a best friend's bachelor party, hanging around my now-deceased grandfather who was rarely far from a Camel. Good memories, all — which obviously isn't to say anything in favor of smoking! Rather, it's to note that even one of our great health scourges has survived in part by taking smell seriously.

It's so easy to overlook the olfactory sense — but specific smells set the stage for the rest of life.

So: what should a school smell like?

Hunch #1: not like a crappy cafeteria. 

It's surprising to me that the administration of my son's school hasn't identified "our school reeks" as A Sensible Problem to be Addressed. Maybe the administration has acclimated to the smell?

(Note: the school is a public, district-run homeschooling outreach school. Most of the time, we're homeschooling our son, or sending him to an outdoor kindergarten. Our lives are complex, if wonderful.)

But of course it might take real work to rid a school of the "Tuesday Mystery Meat" odor. Those odorants are powerful, and in a building lacking both (1) excellent ventilation and (2) counterbalancing smells, they may be impossible to clear out.

But let me suggest a helpful hint to fellow school-founders: ask an outsider to tell you if your school literally stinks. 

Hunch #2: at lunch, like fresh bread.

One of the distinctives of our new-kind-of schooling is that our kids will make lunch together each day. Part of that will be regularly making various kinds of bread — because (1) culture, (2) science, and (3) deliciousness.

I've argued all those before. Now add to that: scent. Because what better way could we communicate to visitors that these schools are good places for human beings than by having them smell fresh bread?

Hunch #3: I have no more hunches.

It's weird, this "smell" thing. I've literally spent 33 years swimming in a sea of smells. They've influenced the way that I feel and behave. And yet I'm an idiot about what a school should smell like. So I'll turn the question over to y'all — what might a new kind of school aim to smell like?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA