By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published October 11, 2007
It was the greatest show on earth … or at least on the St. Jude the Apostle School campus.
Middle school students from the Catholic elementary school flew through the air on the trapeze, balanced on giant globes, spun through the air on the Spanish web, performed stunts on roller skates and rode a bicycle in groups of five.
Some 70 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students participated in Circus of the Kids—a traveling circus program that teaches kids the tricks of the circus trade in just a few short weeks. They put on several performances the weekend of Sept. 21-23.
At the dress rehearsal Sept. 19, a buzz of excitement filled the St. Jude gym. Tom Malak took his eye away from the viewfinder of his video camera to watch incredulously as his daughter, Caroline, a seventh-grade student, became a sparkly blur while spinning over 25 feet in the air on the Spanish web—a soft rope hung from the rafters of the gymnasium.
Malak said his first name was fitting when it came to news that his daughter would participate in a circus.
“I was a doubting Thomas,” he said. “But this has been a super confidence booster for her. It’s been absolutely amazing. She’s learned so much about sticking to something and making it a success. She’s learned to work in a team and to really trust people. And it’s all been done in baby steps.”
Principal Patty Childs watched the dress rehearsal with tears in her eyes. As the students wrapped up the performance, Childs addressed them, her voice choking with emotion.
“All I can say is ‘wow!’ My hands hurt from clapping. My face hurts from smiling,” she said. “This is beyond anything I could ever imagine. You all were just terrific.”
Enthusiasm was not Childs’ initial reaction when middle school coordinator Judy Wood introduced the concept to her. Wood had met the leaders of Circus of the Kids at the National Catholic Educational Association conference held in Atlanta in 2006.
“When she told me about it, I thought it was a wild, crazy, nutty idea, and I looked at her like she had four heads,” Childs said with a laugh.
But Wood was relentless and eventually convinced Childs to visit a school in Kentucky where Circus of the Kids was residing.
“We flew to Kentucky and saw a school performance. I talked to children, to parents,” she said. “I was blown away. I was so impressed talking to the children. Through circus they were forming new relationships; they were challenged. They had all achieved something, and yet they were all equal to begin with on day one. For some students it was the only time they were ever on an equal playing field with others in their class.”
Childs and Wood returned to St. Jude determined to bring Circus of the Kids to their school and began approaching parents and students in small groups, showing them a DVD of the program. About 70 middle school students signed up to participate.
Based in Tallahassee, Fla., Circus of the Kids has been traveling across the country training students and putting on circuses for schools and corporate events since 1982.
Founded by Bruce Pfeffer, COTK comes to a school with all the performance equipment needed and sets up in the gym for an extended period, usually two weeks to a month.
The international group of performers and instructors arrived at St. Jude after Labor Day. The first week the group taught simple circus routines to all the students through the regular physical education curriculum.
Then, after holding auditions, they selected the youngsters to participate in the intensive after-school training sessions where they mastered difficult juggling, balancing and trapeze acts.
Each student who tries out for COTK is chosen to participate in some way, and Childs said it has created confidence boosters that she never thought possible.
“We have one student, and I don’t think he’s ever looked anyone in the eyes. He walks and looks straight down,” she said. “But since he’s been in circus, he’s walking straight and tall, and he’s talking to everyone.”
Because students only have a few short weeks to learn their acts, they must apply themselves in unique ways, Childs said.
“This has affected them. They have learned spirit and courage and teamwork in ways that academics could never teach them,” she said. “They have learned that the impossible is possible.”
Ashley Garrett has two sons who participated in the COTK.
“The first day they came home from practice, I have never seen them so excited over anything, even with years of sports,” she said.
Garrett’s son, Scott, an eighth-grader, was performing as a juggler, while her son, Andrew, a sixth-grade student, balanced on the giant globes.
“Each day they are able to do something they couldn’t do before,” Garrett said. “It’s made them stretch themselves. This can only help when they get into new situations in the future.”
Students had intensive training sessions, practicing for several hours after school and on the weekends.
“It’s been easier to get them to do their homework,” Garrett said. “They have learned a lot about time management.”
On the day of the dress rehearsal, eighth-grader Connor Martel wore a sparkly silver shirt. His eyes were rimmed with black eyeliner.
It wasn’t a typical look for the defensive end of the eighth-grade St. Pius football team. He admits that several of his friends didn’t want to give up football time to perform in the circus. But as Connor flew through the air, performing a triple flip off the teeterboard, he was fairly certain his friends would regret their decision.
“I didn’t want to pass this up. It looked so cool,” he said, adding that he had become friends with several students he hadn’t previously known. “We’re really encouraging to each other. No one’s the star. We’re all a team.”
Indeed, as the students were able to watch the dress rehearsal from bleachers in the audience, the loudest cheers came from fellow performers themselves.
Lauryn Dichting, who also performed in the teeterboard act during which the adult instructors jumped off a high platform onto the board flipping the students into the air, said her experience with COTK had taught her a lot.
“It’s definitely been a lot of fun,” she said. “Just coming out and trying something I didn’t think I could do has been great.”
Jennifer Brown, the mother of a seventh-grade circus participant, served as the parent liaison for the circus. Though she admitted she was at first “apprehensive” about the idea of the circus, she was quickly won over.
“This is just a phenomenal, phenomenal program. The camaraderie here, the way they show respect to each other and root each other on. It’s just been incredible,” she said. “These kids have learned to juggle in more ways than one. They have had to juggle homework and sports and circus. They’ve become really motivated. I have practically lived here, and I’ve seen the change in them.”
Director Pfeffer fell in love with the circus as a young boy in Florida, getting his first taste of the art from the Florida State University circus. He learned to juggle when he was just 9 years old. In 1982, he was teaching circus acts to children at Club Med in the Bahamas but realized that the youngsters weren’t satisfied with just learning. They wanted to perform. From there, Circus of the Kids was born.
“I remember my circus experiences as a child, and I’ll never forget them. To know that I’m a part of that for other kids is really satisfying,” he said. “I know that five, 10, 15 years down the road, they’ll think of this. This will stay with them forever.”
Childs also hopes the lessons they’ve learned from participating in the circus stay with her students.
“They’ve learned that perseverance pays off. The end result—that’s what I hope they take from this. Besides,” she said, adding with a grin, “it’s darn fun.”