LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
I was dropping Gabrielle off at Science Hill today and realized, yes, it’s starting to smell like the end of the school year. That scent, it’s very different than the beginning of the year. In August, back to school is a bouquet of rubbery pencil erasers and fresh sheets of paper. Nerves are quivery and there is something metallic in the air while you wait for the bus in your starchy new clothes.
But the end of the year smells like the brink of summer. The sunscreen you put on for field day. The sweat from going outside for recess and running around under the hot sun. The strawberries, fragrant as Lip Smackers, that start appearing in your lunch kit.
Though I did well in school, I always associated it with bite-your-nails-off stress: piles of homework on Sunday nights, pop quizzes that made me panic, final exams that seemed impossible to be ready for. Standing at the study door with his hand deep in a bag of Old Dutch potato chips, my little brother Matthew would look at me like I was bonkers as I studied away, my nose practically ink-stained from being bent over pages for so long.
“You’re a nerd,” he’d announce, speckles of ketchup flavor red on his chin.
“I don’t have a choice,” I’d squeak.
Always, I was on a countdown, aching for it all to be over, to be released into summer. Then, I could be cradled in warmth, sleep in, go to the lake and read Betty and Veronicas all day long if I wanted to.
We always went to school until the end of June. When that magical sixth month started, that’s when things would start to feel different. Yes, exams loomed, but a lightness started riding over everything like a balloon. The teachers were different, smiled more, joked more, anticipating the end just like we were. And because we didn’t have air conditioning at Robert Browning Elementary School, things got lazier and hotter. Sometimes, at the end of the day, our teacher would just turn out the lights and tell us to put our heads on our desks. The desks always smelled like dried Elmer’s glue.
The rules also got more lax. On a few special occasions, our parents wrote us notes so we could go to Jennifer Gates’ house for lunch. She lived nearby and, boy howdy, good, ole Jenn Gates had a pool.
We’d make the short walk down some back lanes, which were lined with lilacs in bloom, quickly scarf down whatever we had in our lunch and then dive in. The water was cold and that glorious pool blue and she’d turn on the water to the slide. We were supposed to wait about 10 minutes to get the descent nice and wet, but who could wait? We only had 30 minutes to work with. So we’d climb to the top and push down, our bums screeching and burning on the hot plastic. Then on our way back to school, our wet hair dripping, we’d pull off clumps of lilac and give them to our teacher for a gift.
The best representation of the last day of school is of course in the movie “Dazed and Confused.” I love watching that flick just to re-experience the pure glee associated with the last day. The best scene is when the kids are cleaning out their lockers and paper is all over the hallway.
The same stuff you were so excited to start the year off with - the new binders, the untouched scribblers, the spiffy pencil case - now is essentially waste and you can hardly wait to toss it. Then, when the lockers are empty, the school starts to feel like a mere shell, past tense instead of something that’s alive and present. It’s at that point you can hardly wait to get out of there, burst out of the doors, just like they did in the movie, and enter the future you’ve been pining for all these months.
As for Gabrielle Baker, she’ll have her last last day of school at Science Hill in just a few weeks. Then it’s on to high school and the adventure will continue. I wonder what kind of sensory scrapbook she’ll compile so that years from now she can flip through its pages, exhale and smile. I hope it’s as sweet as mine.