Smell is probably the most powerful trigger when it comes to memories. Case in point: at work, one of my co-workers heated up a meal that involved fish. I started remembering vividly my days of elementary school science. There was a schoolwide program called MARE Week. Each grade had their own theme, but one of the things we had to do every year was a squid dissection. That’s what her dinner smelled like: strong and seafood-y.
I could probably still do it, if I had to. Squids are not complicated. The final step of each dissection was to write your name across your worksheet using the squid’s beak and ink from its ink sac. This was actually the hardest step, because squid ink is designed for protection, not calligraphy, and the beak is worthless as a pen. Half the time, we just used toothpicks (part of our arsenal of scientific tools, along with safety scissors and a popsicle stick).
Looking back, this was completely bizarre. But at the time, it was just what we did in March.
The worst year for MARE was third grade. Our theme was the wetlands. It was interesting to learn about, and as I was living in northern California at the time, there were plenty of actual wetlands to go see.
The week culminated in a schoolwide assembly where each grade performed a song based on their theme. The third grade’s song was a charming little ditty entitled “Butts Up!” It was about how ducks fished around the bottom of the marsh for food. For our performance, we made little duck bill visors and little duck tails out of construction paper and paper plates. We would do a little dance that culminated in us turning around and bending over and shaking our little paper ducktails.
It was mortifying. And I refused. I stood in the back and simply crouched down whenever we got to that part of the dance. And I got glared at every single time. I wasn’t one for class participation on a good day, but this? Even as a seven-year-old who was (at the time, surprisingly) hesitant of cursing, I knew this was some serious bullshit. A phone call home was made, and my teacher explained that I refused to participate in the school performance. My mother replied with something like, “So you’re telling me my daughter refused to, essentially, shake her ass in front of the entire school? Good for her.”
But this wasn’t the worst part of that week for me. Oh no. You see, in third grade, we got a special assignment: clam dissection. You may be wondering just what there is to dissect with a clam. I have no idea, because I didn’t actually do it.
When I got my clam, I poked at it with my popsicle stick, and the clam snapped shut. Because living things tend to react when poked. So I held up my hand, and informed the teachers that there was a slight hitch in their whole dissection plan. The clam wasn’t supposed to be alive. And yet, there it was, clinging to life (and my popsicle stick). Well, of course, dissecting a live clam wouldn’t do. So the science teacher did what was quite possibly the most horrifying thing ever: he stuck it in the microwave.
If you’re wondering, it takes about three minutes to nuke a clam to death.
I spent the rest of class sitting in the back with the coats, refusing to do anything. I didn’t eat clams for a year. Again, there was a phone call home, and the situation was, I can only imagine, delicately explained to my mother. Within the next few days, my mother was in the principal’s office.
I don’t know if I’ve explained my mother during my time at elementary school, but she was kind of a big deal. She served on the PTA for a number of years, two or three of them as president. People knew her, the principal especially. They were on first-name terms. So when two phone calls were made home in the same week, a meeting was called.
“Look, John,” I imagine my mother saying to the principal. “I don’t think I’m asking a lot from this school. I’m just asking for my seven-year-old’s butt to not be on display to the entire school, and I’m asking for the science teacher to not brutally murder a living creature in front of her.” You can’t really argue with that.
In the end, I was given a C for the clam situation, and I imagine the year after, the science staff gave the next batch of dissection animals more than a quick once-over. By sixth grade, when we had to dissect sharks, the only thing I had to deal with were the idiot boys in my group who discovered that shark eyes are nature’s superballs.
It’s amazing what bizarre memories smell can unlock, and what roads those memories can take you down. Some can be romantic, some can be tragic, and, for me, one very specific one ends hiding under a coat in the back of a classroom.
And people asked why I didn’t take anatomy in high school.