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Big Top's Small Fry Learn to Take Their Act on the Road

Lifestyles: Children of circus performers must jump through special hoops as they travel across the country.


CHICAGO — They explore the old Boeing 727 as any group of students on a museum field trip might. They punch buttons, try out the passenger seats and pretend they're about to take off on a long journey.

But when told what the plane weighs--165,000 pounds, or about as much as 10 elephants--several children, even one of the youngest, nod knowingly.

"Ohhh," the first-grader says. "We have 10 elephants at home."

If life for them sounds like a bit of a circus, it is--the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. They are the children of acrobats, trapeze artists, animal keepers and others who travel the country nearly year-round with their families in tow.

For the kids, life on the road can be an education in itself. They get to visit sites many students only read about, from Bunker Hill to the U.S. Mint to, in this case, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. It's one of the advantages of their journey by train, truck and trailer with a circus that--elephants and all--has been described as the largest city without a ZIP code.

But on many days, the school in this town comes in the form of a teacher who travels with them, providing a steady routine of homework and tests even as the scenery changes.

It's not the most glamorous side of the "Greatest Show on Earth." School accommodations are often cramped.

"We make do with what we have," says Brenda Shaw, teacher for the Ringling Bros. "red unit," one of two shows that crisscross the country.

In Chicago, it's a small, L-shaped dressing room at the United Center, which hosts the circus and other shows when the city's professional basketball and hockey teams aren't playing. Someone has dubbed it "Escuelita Bonita"--Spanish for beautiful little school--on a piece of masking tape stuck over the doorway label.

Beautiful isn't exactly the word for it.

The windowless room only has space for a few tables, folding chairs and a large wooden box on rollers that carries the school's supplies from place to place.

But Miss Shaw, as her students call her, has done her best to brighten the walls with student artwork and strings of leaves cut out of red, orange and yellow construction paper.

The students and their varied backgrounds also enliven classes. Whitney Boger, 15, is a ninth-grader and the oldest of Shaw's nine students. Her father is "superintendent of animals," and her mother works in wardrobe.

Aaron Gaspar, 12, is the music director's son. Nine-year-old Virginia Torres, a fourth-grader, comes from a long line of Mexican acrobats.

And 7-year-old Kristina Majhartseza--who came from Russia less than a year ago--is the daughter of an acrobat and a dancer, who both perform in the circus.

Older kids attend class in the morning; younger ones in the afternoon. The half days might sound enticing to those who go to conventional school, but there's a catch.

Students attend class on any day the circus has shows scheduled. So that means they often go six--and sometimes seven--days a week.

"We don't have a Sno-Cone and cotton-candy diet," Whitney says.

Sure, she likes to shop at the mall and go to movies in any town she visits, she says. In fact, she and her classmates spend much more time doing things like that than watching the circus, which by now is old hat. Watching TV, walking dogs and playing games with each other also rank high on their lists.

But much of the students' time is spent on schoolwork.

One morning in the Chicago classroom, Whitney takes a science test on thermal energy, while Virginia does fractions. Aaron works on seventh-grade pre-algebra problems, as Shaw moves from student to student, giving instructions and answering questions.

Some parents with Ringling Bros. see the arrangement as a trade-off when compared with traditional school. Carrie Valentin has put her 6-year-old daughter, Lexie, both in Shaw's class and an Indianapolis elementary school during the off season.

"I do feel bad about that these kids don't get a chance to run around much, like at recess," says Valentin, who works in the show's day-care department. But she says Lexie also gets individual attention from Shaw that she could never get in a classroom of 30 children.

Shaw, who joined the circus in September, says she's already noted the positive effects of a life that teaches adaptability and exposes the kids to people from all walks of life.

"All of them are a lot more mature for their age, very bright for the most part," Shaw says. "I mean, they're kids. They fight like brothers and sisters. But they're a really tight-knit group--very good-natured, always willing to help."

Bonnie Katz, a former Ringling Bros. teacher who now lives in San Francisco, agrees.

"They're pretty savvy, very verbal," she says, "probably because they're used to being around adults."

That's certainly true of Aaron, whose travels have made him conversant on such topics as the politics of Puerto Rico.

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