Saturday, October 07, 2006

Circus School: An Education Under The Big Top

It has been said that working for a circus isn't a job but a way of life. I believe that must be true as even the kids attend classes under the big top:
Virginia Torres is a sixth-generation "circus kid."

The ninth-grader's parents are retired circus performers — her mom used to perform on the trapeze and ride elephants — who now work in cotton-candy sales at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Torres has helped her uncle with the horses and elephants in the circus, which is her mobile home nearly year-round.

But Torres wants a different future.

"I think I have an advantage here, learning so many different things," said the 14-year-old Torres, who is in Salt Lake City through Sunday with the Greatest Show on Earth. She knows English and Spanish and some Portuguese, for instance. But, she said, "I'd like to go to college, because I'd like to know something else."

Torres is one of 12 children educated within the big top's mobile school, now set up in a Delta Center room just off the circus-ring floor. The school shares space with a nursery for performers' and workers' infants and toddlers.

Students range from kindergarten to ninth grade. Most are children of circus workers; one teen works as a clown.

The traveling school has several giant trunks, containing textbooks and materials, plus computers and a microwave and board games.

The school, funded by Ringling, receives books and curriculum through a school for young performers based in New York, said Manna George, the circus school's main teacher. Lessons are tailored to individuals, who have some freedom to select the subject they'll work on for the day. At week's end, students and George examine which subjects need more work, and those go on next week's agenda.

"It involves a lot of preparation for me," George said. "It's like having 12 different grades."

Student performers typically stay with the show one or two years, but workers' children tend to stay much longer.

"The downside for me is, I don't know if I'll see anyone graduate," George said. "They are moving all the time."

But she thinks Torres is here to stay and that she'll watch her finish and move on to college.

Still, the movement is part of what George loves about the job. She grew up in India and has undergraduate degrees in math, physics and chemistry, and advanced degrees in special education and counseling, as well as English language and literature. She has worked with autistic children in India, special needs children in an American school in Kuwait, a private school in Chicago, and for the past couple years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

"I wouldn't trade this for anything else," George said. "I find it very stimulating."
When I was a young KidWonk, I gave serious consideration to running away from home and joining the circus.

That ended when my aunt began dating a man who performed as a clown for Ringling Brothers. One afternoon, he took us behind the scenes and showed us exactly how they clean-up after the elephants.

I began chasing other dreams.
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