I learned about life from an ant farm. When I was seven years old, my family assembled one from a kit. First, we put clean sand in a thin glass box, and then we waited for the live ants to arrive. When the postman rang the doorbell and handed them over, my mother looked in despair at the clear glass tubes, wondering if it were completely necessary to follow the directions and put the ants in the refrigerator first for a few hours. Apparently, the cold makes ants sluggish and unable to run away when placing them into a new home.
Shortly after the chilly ants were dropped into the glass structure, they got to work making tunnels. I was amazed that each one knew exactly what to do. After hours of staring, I realized that the ants had assigned jobs. With my mom’s help, I kept a journal of what happened each day and named the ants. My favorite was the biggest, Cinderella. I drew a picture of her in my journal, which I still have.
On day five tragedy struck the ant farm. The pages of the journal, still wrinkled where tear drops fell, indicate the depth of the tragedy. I had put my face so close to the structure that I accidentally tipped it over, caving in all the tunnels. Although the ants survived their earthquake, one by one they began to die. I was horrified as I watched them give up their tunnel-building to carry the bodies to a corner of the farm. My mother reported that the ants were dying of “frustration.” They simply could not stand the reality that their tunnels had been destroyed. Cinderella was the last to die; she did so while carrying a dead ant on her back.
Although much time has passed, I still think of that ant farm. Mom had hoped it would teach me about the natural world, but it taught me much more. Over the years, I came to realize the ants were a study in the benefits of teamwork. Working together, they were able to create an amazing world for themselves. I also learned that they should be admired for their hard work. Day in and day out, each labored at their task. The ant farm demonstrated that teamwork and perseverance are indeed two key ingredients to success. But there was an even larger lesson that I did not realize until recently: Adversity is a natural part of life, and must be accepted. Unlike the ants, humans cannot give up when they face disappointment. Unlike the ants, we have to realize that if a tunnel caves in, we just have to build another.
From time to time, I fall short of a goal, but I try to spend as little energy as possible feeling sorry for myself. Giving up, I say, is not an option. I am a competitive swimmer and, for me, success in the pool means beating my opponents and achieving a time that is a personal best. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing can be measured in the tenths of a second, sometimes in hundredths of a second. In a big meet, the difference between first and second can be the length of an arm. Sometimes I’m so close, and yet so far. But I know that in a competitive world, the only way to survive is to stay positive and never give up.
So I try to live my life like those diligent ants who worked hard every day. But, unlike them, I try not to let frustration defeat me. I suppose I could have learned all this by studying great moments in history or reading about great leaders, but instead, when I was seven years old, an ant named Cinderella showed me everything I needed to know. It just took me a while to realize it. I have to keep building my tunnels.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2006 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.