Circus schools for real, and so is class clown
- Joseph Gallivan
- Portland Tribune - Features
Person of the Week
Kids who are thinking about running away to join the circus might like to learn that school is in session there, too. And it lasts 50 weeks a year.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus has a school. It's not on the 1 1/2-mile-long train that transports 300 circus staff. It's in whatever space they're allotted in whatever arena the circus is in: Madison Square Garden, perhaps, or this week, the Rose Garden.
'We roll in with our two boxes of supplies; I open them and take it from there,' says Manna George, one of two teachers who travel with the circus. It's a classic American one-room schoolhouse where all grades and abilities mix.
Eleven of George's 12 students have parents who work in the concession stands or in management. The circus allows whole families to work and travel together. The three Himenez siblings in the class were born into the circus -their father's been running a concession for 13 years.
School consists of a legal minimum 15 hours a week (rarely on a Monday through Friday schedule) although George pushes them to do 25. 'I think they waste a lot of time once they get out of school,' she says. 'But I go easy on them for the last two hours and give them projects.'
George, who was raised in the strict, British-influenced school system of Kerala, in south India, gives them plenty of reading and homework.
The circus is a way of life and a business, so kids get a mere two weeks' vacation. They study a regular curriculum at grade level, with George teaching everything from math and science to literature and social studies.
She likens it to home schooling. She has to do a lot of preparation to make sure each student has work to start off with. Then she moves around the classroom doing one-on-ones.
'They do miss out on lab work in science,' she says. But it's not all theory. 'They get to experience everything they read in books: states, cities, landforms … ' These kids don't just read about Yellowstone Park and the urban morphology of Chicago, they live it. But teachable moments are nothing without a teacher to seize the moment, and that's George's specialty.
'I think they get a better education than in a regular school,' she says. 'They are better equipped to be out in the world. It's not just regular stuff and the same routine: Every building is new, every town, every climate … With all these things they're very adaptable. I think they'll turn out to be better human beings.'
As for field trips, the teacher tries to cover places connected to their books while their parents deal with the fun places. So in Pennsylvania, George took them to the Hershey's chocolate factory, while the parents took them to Hershey Park amusement park.
A second teacher, Sister Dorothy, deals with the kindergarten-age kids, as well as teaching religious education and English as a second language to all comers. While the nun spends her off hours ministering to the circus staff, George is free to sightsee.
'You know how Indians are, they're everywhere,' says George with a laugh. 'So in every city there are friends and relatives who come to the show, and then we go out.'
Futures go beyond the rings
Some of the young boys have the attitude that they are 'working men' and school is beneath them. She tries to tell them, 'Girls like intelligent men.' Yvinson Acero, 16, is a clown and her only student who's a performer. He did a year of regular school in Oklahoma but prefers the current setup. He knows his calling is the circus.
Ninth-grader Virginia Torres, 14, is fifth-generation circus. George is working on her to go to college. George says: 'I tell her, 'The circus is always going to be there for you, but you don't have a clue what goes on outside. You need to get out and explore - you're not giving yourself a fair chance.' '
Move back to India nixed
Fate, luck and willpower played their part in George's personal story. She was an above-average student and got a bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry. 'But in our (Indian) culture they don't want that from the girls. My mom said, 'Just get into college so I can get you a good match for marriage.' '
After marrying and divorcing she left India nine years ago and taught at an American school in Kuwait for five years, then moved to Washington, D.C., and taught special-ed kids.
'I couldn't handle it, there was no discipline,' she says. But rather than go back to India and 'take a back seat' she kept moving.
Next came a convent school in Chicago, where the girls were all brilliant and there were no discipline problems. That soon became boring, and she applied online for the traveling teacher job, not realizing it meant the whole circus lifestyle.
It was the right move, as she and the train master fell for each other and are 'almost engaged,' as she puts it.
'It's fun,' she says. 'I'm getting to see the whole country for free, I have my own room, and I'm off work by 3 o'clock.'