Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Ants that Bite, Ants that Don't

We walked to school when I was a kid; Mom said goodbye at the front door and the bunch of us could make it safely the several blocks to school to be met by the crossing guard every schoolday. As we closed the gate, my mom would always call after us, "Don't let anybody look at you crosseyed!" We knew what that meant even though we didn't know what it meant.

There were usually the four us us and the three of Todd's family, but by the time Todd and I got into fourth grade sometimes the grouping was different - changing schools for the older kids, altered start schedules on special days, I'm not sure, but occasionally the two of us were left to get each other to school - or maybe we lagged behind doddling too often and the bigger kids assumed we were following. Nothing bad happens in this story, you can relax.

This cool early fall morning, it was just Todd and me. We'd come to the vacant lot with the tall dry yellow grass. It was a good place to find examples of the ants we'd been talking about earlier while sailing big ficus leaves, with red berries in them, down the gutter water, singing the Gilligan's Island theme and making up stories about the Skipper fighting with Gilligan and the Professor solving problems. (Todd's Mr. Howell was superb.)

Red ants bite, black ants don't bite. No, all ants bite. No, only red ants do. Why would their biting be determined by color? Here was the vacant lot. It didn't take Todd long to find a nice crack in the soil with red ants, big red ants, industrializing their way in and out of the crack.

He squatted down and let one crawl onto his hand though I kept telling him he didn't need to prove red ants bit so much as prove black ones didn't. But we were ten and the ants available were the big red ones. The ant explored his palm and he turned his hand as the ant went over his fingers. Todd was no dummy, he had just fallen under the spell of, "Maybe all ants don't bite and maybe I've misjudged these big red ones..." Todd turned his palm up again as the ant found the thin fold between index finger and thumb.


We shook it off and I apologized as if I'd bitten him. We walked on. He winced that it didn't hurt. We put our attention on the route to school.

The crossing guard was gone.

She had taught us well, and we crossed the boulevard practicing "Safety First!" like champs.

We went through the gate onto the schoolyard.

No one was there.

No children on the playground running, no rhyming at the drinking fountain and spitting - jumping-back dodging water spew from the rougher kids, no jumping rope, no kids on the bench at the side of the building sneaking into their brown bag lunches. Quiet school. No girls brushing each other's hair. Empty school.

Todd and I, with a feeling of sudden Saturday tried to wrap our minds around this vacant schoolyard. Where the - ? Could we be late? We'd only stopped a couple of minutes. Could we be late? We hadn't played around that long.

Maybe we were late.

We had classrooms across the hall from each other in the new building. We went up the stairs and into the classrooms, ducking our heads in a little goodbye as we opened our classroom doors. I went to my desk and sat down. The the teacher didn't point me out or make a fuss, she just let me start working with the other children and gave me a little smile of admonishment and welcome in perfect balance. I doodled ants that day - a big red ant and little black ant.

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