Waiting to Struggle

The lesson I learned from ants about what awaits me

On the Sunday before the school year starts, we sit on the front porch in late evening and eat watermelon. The watermelons are perfect this time of year. Big green rinds with zig-zagged stripes of yellow. Thick ripe centers of bright red flesh so sweet to the taste and full of Adam’s ale. That’s the term grandma sometimes uses for water — Adam’s ale.

Daddy slices the watermelon in enormous thick chunks, and hands each of us kids a piece. We sit lined up in a row — my sister, my friend A.J., his brother Chris and me — our legs dangling from the wooden steps. We take full bites, chewing each succulent piece but being careful not to chomp into the fat oval seeds. Those we save to see who can spit them the furthest. I usually win, except the one time that A.J. did, but he cheated when he leaned his body forward. We had agreed that our bodies must stand straight up like a metal flag pole and not move — and that means not leaning — but he still leaned in.

We sit there for a long time eating watermelon and spitting seeds and watching the sun go down on the sticky-hot, late summer day. As we eat, juice from the fruit runs down our chins and drips onto the wooden deck. Pieces of melon drop with it. Soon the sweet smell draws the attention of nearby ants, which form a line and march single file to their syrupy treat.

We watch the little ants walk in their queue. One by one they march, some lifting tiny bits of watermelon twice their size, and carrying it back to the colony. I think how those pieces of fruit must feel so heavy for the little creatures. One ant can’t muster lifting, so he just drags the fruit, struggling, but continues to perform his duty.

Chris, who is the youngest and not yet in Kindergarten, asks if ants have to go to school, too. I tell him no that they just work all day so they don’t need to learn. A.J. who is only a year younger than me says that you can tell the ants are working because they walk single file, one behind the other, like the daddy’s and uncles do when they go down into the mines. My sister who is younger than A.J. but a little older than Chris says that makes sense, and we all just keep watching those ants march on, working.

I can’t help to think that one day, I too will be one of those ants. After we leave school, I’ll line up single file, just like my uncle, and my grandpa, and go down into that dark earth and dig for coal in the early morning. Or maybe I will cut timber, to make wood beams for houses and schools, like my daddy does. What’s the use in all this learning, I think, if all I ever amount to is a miner or a logger. You don’t need to know your times tables to dig for coal.

For now, I’m content sitting here eating watermelon, watching those tiny ants form a work line into the sunset. I’ll wait my turn to struggle.

This creative nonfiction piece is part of my series on coming of age in rural Appalachia. If you enjoyed this essay, please check out more here and here.