Road Rules

Teaching the carny set is no sideshow act

Circuses may be sanctuaries for oddballs and geeks, but on a Sunday morning in November, it is the sheer, unobtrusive ordinariness of the Big Apple Circus that really unsettles and shocks. Spectacular sights are not present. The Liaoning Acrobatic Troupe is not vaulting across Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. Molly Saudek, world-class wire dancer, is nowhere to be found. Instead, people are sipping coffee out of flimsy Styrofoam cups and silently trading sections of The New York Times. A gauzy cigarette haze descends over the lot.

This normalcy extends into the narrow, cramped red trailer that is the One-Ring School House (ORSH) where instructors Cristina Little O. and Susan Tiso are "tag teaching." While Little O.— who's taken her husband's one-letter last name— dissects the latest Iraqi weapons crisis with six students, Tiso walks two others through an Internet search on the origins of braille.

In the shadows of the big top is a place where the spotlight turns not on strange and amazing feats but on the relevance of learning for these students, who are all children of circus performers and staff, or child stars themselves. In a profession that is more a vocation, routine can be an anomaly. It is up to teachers like Little O. and Tiso to create structure and ground students in the constancy of daily life. And while their job offers travel opportunities and the freedom to run small schools, circus teachers also must deal with a glaring lack of resources, little privacy, and students who are resentful about missing senior proms and soccer practices.

"A lot of people just say, 'Oh, they're in a circus, academics aren't important, they'll [the students] all just be performers,' " explains Little O., 33, of Yonkers. "But I take it seriously."

Little O. and Tiso are among the 200 teachers supplied nationally to traveling entertainment and on-set film and theater venues by On Location Education, a Mt. Kisco, New York, company. Big Apple Circus has hired instructors through them since 1994 for ORSH, which is chartered by New York State and has its own school board. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has also been a client for the past eight years. Little O., who is a full-time instructor, has been under contract since September 1997. Tiso, one of two part-time teachers, joined the group last fall.

According to On Location Education founder and president Alan Simon, few teachers choose to net experience in a circus environment and the turnover rate is typically high. "There aren't people necessarily saying to you, year after year . . . that they want to do this for a living," he admits.

On Location Education teachers work as freelancers and are paid a minimum daily rate equivalent to the $104.39 collected by per diem substitutes in the New York City public school system. But most choose to negotiate their own contracts, which usually results in a higher paycheck. By law, children must be taught for an average of three hours daily with a maximum student-teacher ratio of 10 to one, Simon added.

Being flexible is one prerequisite of this life. Getting bundled up to wait in line for a shower is not uncommon and neither are frozen water pipes. And you really have to watch where you step. "You may have on mud boots to get to work and there are wafting odors of tigers whenever you're teaching," observes Simon.

Those who do sign on make for a diverse group. Some are recent college graduates and others hold advanced degrees in education. Many like Little O.— whose résumé includes stints as a New York City park ranger, personal trainer, and Celebrity Cruises entertainment director— are hooked by the challenge of applying their own nuances to a strict, state-approved curricula that requires teaching traditional subjects as well as administering standardized tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Plain old intrigue initially lured Sausalito, California resident Bonnie Katz, 46, to a local summer assignment with On Location Education at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in 1992. Her area of expertise is in studio instruction, tutoring child actors on films like Basic Instinct, George of the Jungle, and The Presidio, as well as on television programs. Going into the circus, the 14-year veteran admits, "I had thought it would be carnies with no teeth and tattoos, but I fell in love with the kids." So she stayed, and for the next 11 months— the first half of a two-year tenure— she trekked through 50 cities in 48 weeks while living in a mobile 12-by-eight-foot studio apartment.

By 1994, Katz and three colleagues had coordinated a well-oiled drill. At every show, they would set up their Little Red Schoolhouse on an arena site and hold two, three-hour-long classes, staggered from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with 12 to 15 students attending each session. Students were grouped by age and grade level, K-12. Children who performed were taught together since their schedules revolved around the same show times, says Katz. "These kids liked going to school," she notes. "Because the performance aspect of their job, that's all they know."

No slouch at being innovative, Katz turned the road into a stellar classroom resource, scouring Triple AAA city guides before each new destination to ferret out new field trip destinations. Little O. also has learned to benefit from being on the move and uses the urban settings in which Big Apple Circus performs to her advantage. For instance, she made arrangements with Manhattan's Trinity School to use its science laboratories on Saturdays so students would not lag in chemistry and biology. And an extended stay in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., provided ample chances to study United States history in the very town where it so often was, and is, made.

Circus teachers also show a flair for improvisation. Little O. is the rare teacher who can shimmy back and forth from an astute discussion on why Zach, not Taylor, is the cutest Hanson to how measuring the mast stay (a rigging that supports a circus tent from within) will eventually yield the Pythagorean theorem. "I'm the goddess of the school," she jokes. "I've even learned to juggle and spin plates." Over the past 16 months, Little O. has mastered how to set up and break down her portable classroom. "I have a carny tool kit," she says. This involves running cables for electricity, hooking up water hoses to create indoor plumbing, and screwing wood boards across shelves to keep books and supplies from spilling out.

Outside the red trailer, someone is whistling Blondie's "Call Me" and hitting all the high notes with appropriate angst. Inside, when Eric Schafer, a lanky 14-year-old, pushes back his folding chair to jiggle awake numb legs, his knees smack into the table. He rolls his eyes when Little O. asks, "Where else would you get to do this?," and Susan Tiso laughs because where else, indeed?


One of six articles in our Education Supplement.

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