by Joyce DiPastena
The ants and I have been through a lot together through the years. Not the kind that infests you house or yard. The kind that go “marching out in the big parade” (to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”).
I calculate that for nearly 20 years now, I have been going to the Primary school once a week to play the piano for a 30-45 minute classroom “singing time”. I started with a third grade class. Every year, on the very first day, Mrs. Esquivel would start by teaching her students to sing, “The ants go marching one by one, hurrah! hurrah!...” And the children couldn’t get enough of it. We sang it constantly, month in and month out, for the full nine months of the school year.
At first, it felt just like any other song. I played it, the children sang. But none of the other songs had ten identical verses (piano-wise), and after a few years, I admit, I began to get a little bored. The music had been quickly memorized, so at first, I would merely watch my fingers to see what exactly they do when I play the piano. When I grew tired of that, I began to pull a little trick. I would start out very slowly on the first verse, then gradually pick up speed verse by verse, until those last ten little ants were marching away at a furious pace by the time they shouted, “The End!”. If Mrs. Esquivel noticed my change in speed, she never said anything to me about it. That livened up the game for me considerably…for a while.
But gradually, my attention began to shift. I entered a “writing phase” where I was actively working on a new book. By now, I knew the song so thoroughly that not only did I not need to look at the music; I could now stare hazily into space and actively plot a new scene while my fingers “did their own thing”. The greatest hazard to this phase, of course, was loosing track of what verse the children were on and risking embarrassment by playing some extra notes after those ten last ants had joined the “big parade”. Fortunately, I don’t recall that happening more than once or twice!
When Mrs. Esquivel switched from teaching third grade to first, she took me with her, and we continued the ants year round. Several years ago, Mrs. Esquivel finally retired, but I was not left musically bereft…the other first grade teachers eagerly adopted me to have music in their classes!
With this change came a new season for the ants. The children no longer sing about them year round. Now, the ants are considered a “spring song”, so they only go marching from January through May. Unfortunately, I have entered a new season, as well. It’s called “middle age”, and it sometimes comes with a great surge of sleepiness immediately after lunch, which for the last few years has been the “new time” for our singing period. Now, instead of turning the song into a race, or using it for “plotting time”, I sometimes find myself “resting my eyes” through the ten verses instead, and to be honest, I have on occasion come alarmingly close to falling asleep while I play! Never in the wildest dreams of my youth did I ever think I’d see a day where I could sleep and play the piano at the same time!
Actually, that theory has yet to be proven. So far, I’ve managed to snap myself awake before I actually pass out during the song. I do wonder, though, if I ever nodded off, would my fingers know to keep playing? Or would I abruptly tumble off the piano bench, giving the students a day of school singing they’d never forget?
Today, as school resumes after the holiday recess, I once again have a rendezvous with the ants. What will this spring season hold for us? Racing? Or napping?
Maybe the safest thing to do is to start plotting a new book…