I spoke with my stepmother a few weeks ago and shared that the school opening was just days away. “The smell of paper and chalk,” she reminisced; “the first day of school always brings back memories of paper and chalk.” My stepmother is not by nature a nostalgic person, at least not outwardly so, but at that moment she was transported back to a place when that aroma symbolized something meaningful. For me, chalk dust and mimeograph paper are what my memory conjures. Cleaning the erasers was a much sought-after job in 5th grade—creating lots of noise and large dust clouds had a special appeal to most 10-year-olds. And freshly mimeographed worksheets always signaled something new.
These memories that we all have trigger emotional experiences that have stayed with us and continue to inform how we interpret our environment—school, learning, growing up, and all of the complicated emotions wrapped around those experiences. I see the long hallways of Alcott School—3rd-grade classrooms are closest and the 5th-grade classrooms are at the end of the hall. I feel the spring in my step as I sport my new PF Flyers along with the worry about where I would sit for lunch. I hear bells marking the end of fierce dodgeball games at recess. I am reminded of fresh beginnings, teachers who loved their work, and the thrill of learning.
Odorless Google sheets and smart boards have replaced much of the paper and chalk. Still, when I walked the breezeways and classrooms before our students returned, I was back in Mrs. Washburn’s third-grade classroom and the playground outside her door—school year’s dawn on the horizon and a year of possibilities ahead. Welcome back.