Claudia Mills is the author of over fifty books for young readers. She does not personally keep an ant farm, but she does have a cat, Snickers, with whom she curls up on her couch at home in Boulder, Colorado, drinking hot chocolate and writing. Find Claudia online at ClaudiaMillsAuthor.com.
“Signs of Spring,” Nora Alpers wrote at the top of a blank page in her favorite notebook, where she recorded interesting facts.
Beneath it, she wrote the best sign of spring: “1. ANTS!”
Her fourth-grade teacher, who called himself Coach Joe, had told their class to make lists of the signs of spring they were noticing now that last month’s record snowfall was finally melting. Nora knew the other kids in her class would be listing daffodils poking up, warmer weather, softball season beginning. Emma Averill would probably start with the Easter bonnet she had gotten for her cat, Precious Cupcake. Nora had already seen videos of Emma’s cat wearing her flower-trimmed straw hat.
Nora’s classmates probably hadn’t even seen the pavement ants beginning to march across the sidewalk in front of Plainfield Elementary School, foraging for new territory. They didn’t notice things like that.
Maybe this spring, she’d follow the ants to their nest. Maybe she’d even catch a glimpse of their queen. Nora had an ant farm at home, filled with ants busy doing fascinating things. But without a queen, her ants died off in months. With a queen, a colony of ants could live forever.
“All right, team!” Coach Joe called to the class. Coach Joe loved sports as much as Nora loved ants. If she was ever a teacher--a professor of myrmecology, the scientific study of ants--she’d start class by saying to her students, “All right, colony!”
She liked the sound of that.
“You can finish your lists later,” Coach Joe said. “Huddle time!”
Nora closed her notebook and joined the others for the class meeting on the football-shaped rug in one corner of the classroom. Emma had plopped herself down next to Dunk Edwards, ready to giggle at everything he said or did. Nora could already hear a loud belch from Dunk followed by an appreciative giggle from Emma. Ever since Emma’s best friend, Bethy Brink, had moved away last month, Emma’s flirting with Dunk had gotten even worse.
“Do you know what day it is?” Coach Joe asked, once everyone was seated.
Nora couldn’t figure out what he wanted them to say. Monday? April 11?
“It’s opening day,” Coach Joe said, “of a brand-new season. Our standardized testing is done for the year”--cheers from the class--“and we’re ready to leap into spring. In social studies, we’ll be starting our unit on the Civil War, a war that began in April of 1861 and ended in April of 1865.”
Dunk switched from burps to the rat-a-tat-tat of imaginary gunfire.
Nora perked up as Coach Joe turned to the next subject.
“In science, we’re going to be studying botany, the science of plants, and we’ll be making a class garden.”
“Can we grow whatever we want?” Brody Baxter asked. Always enthusiastic, Brody sounded ready to grow every kind of plant he could find.
“Each one of you will have part of a row of your own,” Coach Joe replied. “You’ll need to think of plants that can survive freezing nights and grow fairly quickly. Radishes or lettuce would be good.”
Brody’s best friend, Mason Dixon, scowled. Mason didn’t like any vegetables, or anything to eat other than macaroni and cheese, Cheerios, and Fig Newtons.
“Or peas,” Coach Joe added.
Peas! Nora had been reading a wonderful library book about peas. A nineteenth-century Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel had spent his life growing peas in his monastery garden and learning about genes, the biological markers that make all living things what they are. He had discovered the entire science of genetics, all by growing peas.
Nora’s parents were both scientists at the university. They had told Nora that, in science, it was important to do experiments over and over again to make sure the same results happened every time. A fact wasn’t proven because of how an experiment turned out once. Results needed to be replicated by scientists all over the world.
Nora could replicate Mendel’s experiments with peas she grew herself in the class garden!
She turned back to the huddle.
“In language arts,” Coach Joe went on, “we’ll be writing poetry.”
Elise Fairfield, who loved to write, glowed, and Emma’s face wore a dreamy expression. Maybe Emma was envisioning writing a poem about Dunk with rhymes for belch and burp. What rhymed with burp? Slurp, maybe. Dunk slurps. Dunk burps. I’d rather have a bird that chirps.
Nora’s giggle was drowned out by the groans of most of the boys (except for Brody, who never groaned about anything) and some of the girls, too. Nora wasn’t looking forward to the poetry unit, either. She liked the way poetry sounded, but she didn’t think she’d be good at writing poems herself. Poetry didn’t have a clear answer the way science did. How would she know whether she had gotten her poem right?
“Now, team,” Coach Joe said, “my challenge is to make poetry fans out of all of you.”
Brody beamed. Mason sighed. Dunk grunted. Emma giggled.
Sometimes Nora couldn’t help but feel that people were so . . . predictable. Maybe that was what Mendel had proved with his experiments: peas and people had to be whatever they were going to be.
“I’m going to make poetry fans out of all of you,” Coach Joe repeated. “Poetry is a way of getting you to look at the world with new eyes, and I’m going to see if I can get you to look at poetry with new eyes. Finally, speaking of a new season, new subjects, new plants growing in our new garden, and seeing the world with new eyes, I’m going to give you one more challenge.”
Nora waited as Coach Joe took a long, dramatic pause.
“We’re at the time of the school year when it’s easy to fall into ruts, to do things the way we’ve always done them—same old, same old, all day long.”
Exactly what Nora herself had been thinking! Dunk was always being so Dunk-ish, Emma so Emma-ish, Mason so Mason-ish, Brody so Brody-ish. Was she always being . . . Nora-ish? Well, she was always thinking about ants. But ants were such a wonderful thing to think about!
Coach Joe continued. “So I want each of you to make a pledge to do something completely new over the course of the next six weeks, something you’ve never done before.”
“Like what?” Nora’s closest friend, Amy Talia, asked. Nora guessed that Amy, who loved all kinds of animals (except for ants), would want to get a new pet, which meant a pet in addition to her two dogs, two cats, two rabbits, and two parakeets.
“Anything!” Coach Joe said. “Try a new sport.” Nora should have known he’d start off with that one. “See if your parents would let you have some lessons on a new musical instrument. Start learning a foreign language. Spend time with a new friend, preferably someone as different from you as possible. Something big, something small, do anything different at all! See, I made a poem right there.” He grinned at his class.
“How long are we supposed to do it?” Tamara Johnson asked. Tamara, who did jazz dance and hip-hop, would probably want to learn a new form of dance. Maybe ballet?
“Ideally, for a whole month. If it’s less, well, that’s something, too.”
“And then what?” Emma asked.
“Then share your new thing with us in some creative way. Write a poem--yes, by then, you’re going to love writing poetry. Make a poster, or a collage, or a video.”
“Do we get a prize?” Emma persisted. “If we do the newest new thing?”
Coach Joe didn’t answer right away. Nora could tell he hadn’t thought about prizes. “Well, sure,” he finally said. “We can crown a King and Queen of the New. All right, team. Huddle dismissed.”
“I hate new things!” Mason muttered as the class filed back to their four-desk pods. Mason was now in Nora’s pod; Coach Joe switched the “lineup” of the pods every few weeks. Emma was in Nora’s pod, too, even though Emma had already been in Nora’s pod earlier this year. Nora liked Emma, but the two of them were definitely as different as different could be.
“Coach Joe said it could be something little,” Nora suggested to Mason. “Eat something new.”
“I don’t like eating new things!”
“Or wear something new. Wear different-colored socks.” Mason always wore brown socks.
“I don’t like different-colored socks!”
Nora grinned. She was glad she had her new thing picked out: her study of the genetics of peas would be new. Not new to the history of science, of course, because Mendel had already done it, but new to her.
Back at their pod, Emma had taken her seat. “Bethy’s moving away to California was a mega-new thing,” she said to Nora. “So Bethy did the newest new thing of all. But moving away from your best friend is too new, in my opinion.”
Nora nodded her head in sympathy.
“What’s your new thing going to be?” Emma asked Nora. She had a look in her eyes Nora had never seen before. “Some new project with your nice ants?”
Nora knew Emma hated ants.
“No, I’m going to study a new thing in science,” Nora said.
“That sounds like fun!” Emma said. “You’re so good at science, Nora.”
“What new thing are you going to do?” Nora asked.
Emma might try a new hairstyle. Unlike Nora, Emma adored fixing her blond curly hair.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Emma said, with an extra-friendly smile.
For some reason, Nora felt uneasy.
“You know what, Nora?” Emma said. “You came over to my house the time I had the fancy tea party for Precious Cupcake.”
That was the time Emma’s cat had swallowed the ribbon on her fancy kitty dress and had to be rushed to the vet.
“And I’ve come to your house for the Nellie party.”
That was the time Emma had made Nora host a party so the girls could admire her brand-new niece, who was now five weeks old.
“But we’ve never had any one-on-one time.”
This was true. They liked such different things. Nora loved doing experiments on her ants. Emma loved taking videos of her cat. Emma loved stylish clothes. Nora loved nonfiction books. They sat at the same lunch table and hung out with the same group of girls. But they had never really done anything for fun, just the two of them.
“Would you like to come over one day after school this week?” Emma asked. “Or, wait, I have a better idea. Come for a sleepover! Not this weekend, because my grandma is coming to visit. But next weekend. Definitely, next weekend!”
Nora didn’t know why she felt strange about Emma’s invitation. It seemed so odd that Emma would ask her today, right this minute, when she had never invited her for a sleepover before.
She smiled weakly and heard herself answer, “Sure.”
A terrible suspicion began to form in Nora’s brain: Emma’s new project was her.
The first day of spring is called the vernal equinox. In the Northern Hemisphere it comes around March 20 or 21. But in the Southern Hemisphere everything is backward and it comes around September 22 or 23 because of how Earth tilts on its axis as it orbits the sun. I wonder what an ant’s favorite signs of spring would be.
“I’m thinking about a snake,” Amy said as the two girls walked home together after school.
“For your new thing?” Nora asked.
Amy nodded, braids bobbing. “But my mom might think a snake is too new. For some reason, she hates snakes.”
Nora knew how Amy felt. “For some reason, my mom hates ants!”
Amy laughed. “What’s your new thing?” she asked Nora.
“I’ve decided to do a new kind of science experiment. I’m going to experiment on plant genetics in my part of the class garden.”
Amy’s eyes widened. Plant genetics did sound impressive. Then Amy cocked her head to one side.
“Is that new enough?” she asked. “You’re already doing science experiments all the time.”
“These are different; they’re experiments on plants,” Nora explained. “Plants are completely different from ants. You’re always getting new pets, but a snake will be your first non-mammal or non-bird pet. Reptiles are new for you, and plants are new for me. Plants are even more new compared to ants than snakes are new compared to dogs, cats, rabbits, and parakeets. They’re a whole different kingdom. I’m going from the animal kingdom to the plant kingdom, and you’re still in animal. So mine is extremely new.”
Amy’s brow wrinkled.
“Everyone is doing the class garden,” Amy pointed out. “It’s a school thing. Like, we’re all going to be writing poetry, but we can’t make that be our new thing because it’s something we have to do for school.”
Nora didn’t feel like trying to explain to Amy that replicating Mendel’s experiments on plant genetics was completely different from growing radishes to eat in a salad or pansies to stick in a vase. It was time to change the subject.
“Emma asked if I want to come for a sleepover sometime,” she said.
“Like a sleepover party?” Amy asked.
“No,” Nora said. “Just her and me.”
Amy was so surprised she stopped walking, so Nora had to stop, too.
“Emma? Asked you? For a sleepover? Having a sleepover with Emma is a lot newer than studying plants,” Amy said.
“Well,” Nora said uncomfortably. “I think . . . You know how Coach Joe said a newness project could be spending time with someone as different from you as possible? And Emma sounded all excited about having the newest project of all? Emma and I are opposites in everything. You know we are. So I think maybe . . .”
Amy waited before replying, as if trying on the idea for size. Then she shrugged. “A sleepover at Emma’s would be fun, anyway. Precious Cupcake is soooo adorable. And Emma’s snacks are the best.”
Would it be fun?
Nora loved doing projects. She was always experimenting on her ants, or making a chart of the night sky, or trying to figure out why the Alpers family vacuum cleaner didn’t work.
But being someone’s project? That was a different thing altogether.
Every day when Nora got home from school, her routine was the same:
1. Hang up her coat, if she was wearing a coat.
2. Carry her backpack upstairs to her room and take out her homework, if she had any homework.
3. Check on her ants.
Nora always did the same things in the same order, but her ants always had something new and different to show her. She had never once come home after a whole day away at school and found her ant farm exactly as she had left it. Her ants had dug a new tunnel or hollowed out a new chamber. They had eaten food, transported food, stored food, cleaned up food debris. The world of ants was constantly changing.
Well, unless her ants were dead. Which happened sometimes, in a colony without a queen.
In fact, her colony was drawing closer to the end of its life span right now. There were more dead ants carted off to the ant burial chamber than there were live ants doing the carting.
Nora gazed down at her ants. Even though she knew that dying, like digging, was something ants did, she had a pang in her heart each time an entire colony of these busy, bustling, brave, tiny creatures died off.
What if she could find a queen this spring? That would be the newest new thing of all.