Teachers at 'The Greatest Show on Earth' share nomadic life

By THOMAS PEIPERT, Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) - Just about every week, Maureen Breslin unpacks two portable wooden chests on wheels and stocks her temporary classroom with school supplies. Her teaching career has led her on a winding path across the United States, taking her to a different city _ and a different classroom _ almost every week. Her students: traveling child performers in "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Since February, the 28-year-old Breslin has taught young performers and the children of performers in the Red Unit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

 

But her classes are a far cry from clown school. She teaches subjects ranging from math to social studies five days a week for 11 months a year _ holding class in small, fluorescent-lit conference rooms and backstage areas at the arenas that house the circus.

"One of my first school rooms was a skybox in Cincinnati," she said. "It really depends week to week on what the arena itself is like."

 

Three teachers, one for each of the circus' traveling units, instruct a total of 40 students throughout the year.

 

Over the past year and a half, some of Breslin's older students, ages 14 to 17, have missed out on high school football games, dances and the typical school day. But they've traveled to dozens of cities, seeing the sights most students can only read about in books. By the end of the current show's two-year tour, they will have visited 80 cities.

 

The transient lifestyle can be tough on the students.

 

"I've had to adapt to certain things in the circus," said Ivan Vargas, a 15-year-old performer whose great-great-great grandfather started a family tradition when he began traveling with circuses in Mexico.

 

In Dallas, Vargas worked on algebra problems as clowns in colorful makeup strolled through the halls and elephants quietly grazed on piles of hay in the parking lot of the American Airlines Center.

 

He and his classmates, all members of the Chicago-based Windy City Acrobats, didn't seem distracted.

 

"I've been with the circus my whole life," Vargas said. "I was literally born during the show. My father kept running back to the hospital after each act."

 

But for some, Ringling Brothers is more than work or school. It's a safe haven from where they grew up.

 

"In a way, the circus is a ticket out of it," 17-year-old Omar Dudley said of the rough Chicago neighborhood he left behind. "Being in the circus exposed us to all these different things. It helped us know what we want in life."

 

A show member since January 2005, Dudley said he prefers the close-knit atmosphere of the circus school over the public and private schools he attended back home.

 

"This school is totally different," he said. "It's more personal."

 

Breslin said she works with 14 students, far fewer than the 100-plus she dealt with while teaching social studies at a public high school in suburban Pennsylvania for two years.

 

"I think the freedom and flexibility of it, the ability to be the teacher, the lesson planner and the principal is appealing to me," she said.

 

At about noon, seven children, ages 7 to 11, slowly filed into a small room tucked in a side hallway of the arena in Dallas. They sat at two long folding tables and took out their homework.

 

Though they're not performers, several have spent most of their lives in the circus. Their parents include a tiger trainer, a bandleader, a concessions worker and the leader of a dog and miniature horse show.

 

During weekdays, Breslin alternates three-hour class periods between older and younger students. At any given time, she could be teaching math, grammar, counting, reading, literature, geography or science.

 

"I hate to say it's more responsibility," she says. "It's just a different kind of responsibility because you're not just one teacher that they're going to see during the day."

 

Once class is over, it's show time for the older students, who perform high-flying basketball and jump rope routines. After that, it's time to catch a bus back to the Ringling Brothers' circus train _ their home on wheels during the tour.

 

At the end of their stay, Breslin and her students repack the wooden chests and prepare for the train ride to the next city _ a move that for them marks the beginning of just another typical school week.