A Minor Skirmish

My workplace is set in the midst of breathtaking beauty. The main building is a flint manor house with a low roof and the rest of the school comprises converted barns and other out-buildings in keeping with the olde worlde appeal of village dwellings from a bygone era. We have lunch in a hall that can only be described as a banqueting hall, complete with sturdy wooden beams and small, pretty lead-light windows. We eat at long, wooden, trestle tables and the daily menu complements our charming surroundings. The staff room has French windows which open out onto a patio, which in turn overlooks a small orchard. Down a steep bank, at the top of which is a neat row of Leylandii trees, all standing to attention, is the school field. Beyond that, we are lucky enough to look upon the rolling greenness of the South Downs. We stand alone, apart from the farm behind us.
But countryside abodes have their drawbacks. Like year-round ants. We have ants in the summer. And in the autumn . . . And in the winter . . . And in the spring. As the summer takes a back seat and the days grow shorter and colder, the summer ants die out. And we witness the rise of The Winter Ant. Apparently, we host a rare breed of ant that can survive low temperatures and apparently it is a country thing. This year we have played host to thronging masses of armies of ants. When you make a hot drink and see ants floating carelessly on the surface of your much-needed beverage . . . When you flush the toilet and a waterfall of ants courses down from the rim of the toilet . . . When a student says ‘Miss, there’s like a million ants on the shelf behind you’ . . . It was the last in that list of ant crises that forced me to take matters into my own hands.
In my previous house (the hateful hovel), I had an ant problem. I Googled ‘ants’ on March Against Monsanto and found myself an easy, non-toxic (well, not to the ants but to other livestock like my beloved pets) way to rid my life of the prolific creatures. I’ll take it into work, I decided. And I did. I mixed up an ‘ant potion’ from yeast and honey and gave some to my boss and kept some for me. I felt like an apothecary, with my fastidious mixing and placing in strategic places. It started well; the ants flocked to the mixture and my classes that day were fascinated with the numbers of ants tidily encircling the massive drops of potion on tiny squares of card.
“I can’t believe how many ants are in my classroom,” bemoaned my boss, gazing, slightly distressed, at the ant community greedily guzzling their last meal behind her drawer unit.
“It’ll be worth it,” I assured her, “because they’ll all be gone by tomorrow.”
“Hmm . . . ” she didn’t sound convinced, but this potion had worked within an hour in The Hovel, so I was confident.
My school is a boarding school. So, in the evening, when a typical day school quietens down and breathes a sigh of relief as the last student shuts the door behind them, our school (and others like it) are just gearing up for an evening of boarding fun. Even now, years after I should have grown out of Enid Blyton-esque ideology, I’m still enamoured with the idea of ‘jolly’ pillow fights and ‘scrummy’ midnight feasts. I attended a boarding school, but as a day pupil and begged to be a boarder but understandably, what with living a mere 15 minute drive away, my parents laughed at such a request. This is the third boarding school I’ve taught in which I believe is no coincidence. As is the fact that I positively revelled in the part of Daisy Meredith in ‘Daisy Pulls it Off’, a play written in shameless ‘jolly hockey sticks’ style. Being a boarder is one of the few things you can only do in childhood, so I have accepted that that particular ship has not only sailed but docked in harbour with its anchor firmly on the ocean floor.
So, the point is, my classroom becomes a study room in the evening. The particular houseparent running this operation tends to leave rude messages on my whiteboard, attributing them to a hapless Year 11 student who is exasperated at my firm ‘belief’ that he has written them, seeing as his name is always scrawled at the bottom. (On Leavers’ Day I will assure him that of course I knew his cheeky houseparent framed him every night.) But said houseparent missed a few nights, so I messaged him, berating him for his lack of care and warning him I expected a message tomorrow morning.

‘I can’t get to your whiteboard for the ants,’
he replied.
“Don’t worry,” assured a colleague the following morning, when I was scared to open my classroom door, “You know he’s a wind-up!”
But not this time. The scene in my classroom was like one from a post-apocalyptic disaster movie involving ants. (If there was one.) They had multiplied. There were 1000s of them. The potion hadn’t killed them off: it had attracted them. I’m certain it had decimated them, but of course, dealing with a large area of land with several buildings is rather different from dealing with one’s own house. There was a plentiful supply of the blighters and word had got round, evidently, that the English department had a yummy concoction of yeast and honey on the menu today. Marginally better than rotting apple cores and carelessly strewn banana skins, even if it did swell up inside of your tiny ant tummy and kill you (not certain of the first bit of that, to be honest. As a vegetarian I rather hope the end is less painful). Anxiously, I disposed of the pieces of card which removed the bulk of the trespassers, knowing that I was merely borrowing a small of amount of time in so doing.
Some of our students have 1:1 support staff and this was the case in my first lesson that day. I’m happily wittering on about something – complex sentences perhaps – when I notice her head slowly turn to the side and over to the corner of the classroom, as if she has seen something in her peripheral vision. Then her head stops and her eyes become the biggest I’ve ever seen eyes become and this strange phenomenon is accompanied by a screech, which eventually forms the words:
” There’s an army of them! Marching across the floor!”
And she was right. It doesn’t take much for teenagers to become distracted – especially ours – so in a moment they are all in the corner of my classroom, checking to verify her claim. There it was – a long line of them, marching backwards and forwards, collecting bits of the potion I’d missed – the potion that was almost responsible for world ant domination. You couldn’t easily make them out before – they blended with the carpet – but now we knew they were there, it was all we could see.
I had to admit defeat. Victory was theirs. At least, for now. It was time to summon the experts: The Maintenance Men. They arrived at the close of the school day, fully equipped with Ant Annihilation gear to blast the invaders into eternal oblivion. And it worked. There was carnage the following Monday, before the cleaners had had a chance to clear up the spoils of war. Dead ants lined the skirting board. Defeated. Until another army in a far corner of the neighbouring farm silently prepared for the next assault . . .


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