- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

CHICAGO They explore the old Boeing 727 plane as any group of students on a museum field trip might. They punch buttons, try out the passenger seats and pretend they are 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, give knowing nods.
"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.
For the children, 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 has space for only a few tables, folding chairs and a large wooden box on rollers that carries the school's supplies from place to place.
Yet Miss Shaw has done her best to brighten the room's walls with student artwork and strings of leaves cut out of red, orange and yellow construction paper.
The students and their varied backgrounds also liven things up. They include 15-year-old Whitney Boger, a ninth-grader who is the oldest of Miss 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.
Older children attend class in the morning and their younger counterparts go in the afternoon. The half days might sound enticing to those who attend conventional school, but there's a catch.
The students attend class on any day the circus has shows scheduled. So that means they often go six and even sometimes seven days a week.
"We don't have a Sno Cone and cotton candy diet," Whitney says, dispelling any notion that their life is all fun and games.
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 show, which by now is old hat. Watching TV, walking dogs (allowed for those who have their own trailers) and playing games with each other also rank high on their list of favorite pastimes.
Much of the students' time, however, 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 Miss 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 Miss Shaw's class and an Indianapolis elementary school during the off season.
"I do feel bad that these kids don't get a chance to run around much like at recess," says Mrs. Valentin, who works in the show's day-care department. But she says Lexie also gets individual attention from Miss Shaw that she never could get in a classroom of 30 children.
Miss Shaw, who joined the circus in September, says she already has noted the positive effects of a life that teaches adaptability and exposes the children to people from all walks of life.
"All of them are a lot more mature for their age, very bright for the most part," Miss 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, for example, whose travels have made him conversant on topics like the politics of Puerto Rico.
He and others say life on the road does have a downside, however. They often talk about missing friends and family and the homes they go to during the brief December off-season.
"It's nice to see the country, but there is this stuff that goes with it," Aaron says, noting that during 2000 he and his family visited 42 states. "It can be very isolating."


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