School for Circus Children: From the 3 R's to the 3 Rings

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MEADOWLANDS, N. J. --Like many seventh graders, Tato Farfan likes gym best.

But unlike most of his peers, Tato doesn't slip on a pair of sneakers and knock around a volleyball or shoot baskets after school. He wriggles into a skintight rhinestone-studded body suit and performs aerial triple somersaults with his family--The Flying Farfans--high above the center ring, in arenas crammed with thousands of gasping and cheering spectators.

Tato, 13, is a trapeze artist. He is one of a dozen youths who are traveling around the nation this year with one of the two road troupes--the Red and the Blue--of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

However, just as the show must go on, so must their schooling.

Whether the circus train stops in the dank Meadowlands of New Jersey or the sunny cities of California, Tato and his classmates spend roughly one to three hours a day, seven days a week, being tutored by another cast member, Pamela Hellett.

"The only things the kids miss are pep rallies and pizza stands on the corner," said the young teacher during a Thanksgiving-week stand at the newly opened Byrne Meadowlands Arena, a few miles west of Manhattan.

Ms. Hellett, 28, joined the circus after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English and theater arts in 1974. She started out as a performer, riding horses and other animals around the three rings. Two years ago, though, she traded in her spangled circus outfit for casual clothes and the job of teaching the three R's to the circus children.

Her "Bible," she says, is the Calvert School Home Instruction method. This kindergarten through eighth-grade correspondence course is administered to some 5,000 children of military, embassy, and entertainment workers throughout the world, according to officials of the 84-year-old Baltimore-based independent school.

"It's a tough course," asserts Ms. Hellett, who dresses for class as informally as do her students, wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt, tan corduroys and a gold circus-elephant necklace. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, she points out, studied under Calvert's mail-order instruction method in the 1930's.

English composition begins in first grade and art history commences in grade three. By the sixth grade, Tato and his classmates are asked to compare the "Perseus" of the famed 18th-century sculptor Antonio Canova with the gold and jeweled artifacts of the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini; they have also been asked to memorize the poem "The Snake" by Emily Dickinson.

"We never had to go back to basics," explained Calvert's home-instruction director, Harry R. Marcoplos, in a telephone interview.

It does not matter that Ms. Hellett is not a certified teacher, according to Mr. Marcoplos. "We give a very detailed lesson plan and the home tutor is right there to see each child do every item."

Students are also required to take extensive multiple-choice and essay tests following each series of 20 lessons. Ms. Hellett mails the exam booklets to Baltimore for scoring by Calvert teachers who send them back with written comments and grades.

According to Ms. Hellett, the instruction level is so high that the performing children who briefly attend public schools when the circus returns to its winter home in Venice, Fla., are often placed a year ahead of their Calvert grade levels.

While most circus children complete the course, not all have gone on to receive their high-school diplomas. An exception is the daughter of the world renowned animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. Tina Gebel-Williams, 18, recently completed a secondary-school correspondence course offered by another school.

As the circus moves from city to city, Ms. Hellett holds her classes in makeshift headquarters in dressing areas of arenas. On a recent morning in the Meadowlands, the "school" was a tan cinderblock dressing room identified with masking tape that read "School Room, 1 table, 7 chairs." Across the hall was another chamber marked "Female Clowns and Polish Ladies, 6 chairs, 1 table, 1 trash can."

Since all of the schoolwork is individualized, the children filter in and out in rhythm with their performing schedules.

For instance, Buffy Gebel-Williams, 10, Tina's brother, answers history questions before running off to straddle six-ton elephants.

Later, a blue-jean-clad Tato, whose parents are natives of Chile and Czechoslovakia, explains the meaning of "post meridian," while half-smilingly muttering to a visitor, "The trapeze is easier, let me tell you."

Despite occasional grumbling, the pupils seem to enjoy the special attention they receive, and Ms. Hellett has little trouble keeping them in line. "They're disciplined from their acts," explains the teacher.

Ms. Hellett clearly enjoys her job. "I like the people," she says. "The circus is like a big family. I like the action--to keep moving. When we're in a town five or six days, I'm already itching to get going again."

A longtime performer, Ms. Hellett danced with professional troupes in Pennsylvania when she was a teenager. After graduating from college, she had planned to relocate in Las Vegas to work in show business, but then she noticed a Ringling Brothers ad in a Pittsburgh newspaper.

"The only thing I knew about the circus before I joined was Don Ameche's International Showtime on Friday nights," she says. "I thought I'd take a job for a year--but then it snowballed."

Six years later, Ms. Hellett is as enthusiastic about the circus as ever. But teaching in a normal classroom would not interest her at all, she says.

"Here, I feel like I'm still involved. There's no makeup and no costume, but I adore the children. I've learned patience and understanding." She's happy to continue being the circus tutor, she says, for the foreseeable future--although a return to the center ring at some point would also please her.

As for Ms. Hellett's students, they have the same ambition as many youngsters: "I want to be in the circus," says Tato.

Vol. 1, Issue 17, Page 9

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