What teaching in an American circus taught me about life: A teacher from Kerala writes

The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus shut its doors after 146 years, in 2017. Before that, for a good eight years, I happened to be part of it.
Manna Abraham
Manna Abraham
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It is always an honour to work for a company that's a century-and-half old. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is a prestigious circus. There is pride in every person who works there. How privileged was I to be part of this company! Why I take personal pride is because in all its 146 years, I was the only Indian employed. I am originally from Chengannur in Kerala but was raised in Chennai. Personal reasons took me away from home to the US. I needed a job and had tried two mundane teaching jobs before taking up the job with the circus.

The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey shut its doors after 146 years, in 2017. Before that, for a good eight years, I happened to be part of it. I found myself as their on-location educator in 2004. Was the tsunami that hit in 2004, in the same week that I joined the circus, a sign for the life that was going to be mine for the next eight years?

My "school" consisted of one room (the size varied), on an average 16 students, all grades, two huge boxes (7×6×2) which when opened became our book shelf, library, a kitchenette, work station. Unbelievable right? It was, for me too.

The staff and employees lived in a train that was a mile-and-a-half long (the longest privately owned train in the US).

Mine was a 7x12 room with a bathroom, stove top, refrigerator, microwave, a sink, and storage for pots and pans. It even had a little spot for a TV. Crammed? Not at all. That’s all a single person needs. I even had two cats. They are probably the most widely travelled house pets on earth!

This question is to teachers. How many lesson plans do you make a day? 2? 4? Maximum 7 right? I made plans each day for 60 to 64 lessons. Here’s the math. Four subjects /day/per child, 16 students, and 64 lesson plan.

When I had three 2nd graders, I thought that means two lesson plans less. But, no, each student is at a different level. The high functioning, the standard functioning and the low functioning. I made IEPs (Individualised Educational Programme -- for special children) for each.

Despite this heavy onus, I loved it. I love challenges.

Other than having regular classes for all under 18, I kept my interest and those of my students alive by coming up with alternative learning methods. Projects, field trips, trainings were some other activities.

An International Food Festival is something even big restaurants find difficult to pull off. But my students and I had 27 nationalities participate. Each nation brought their traditional dish. I made biriyani. My students -- grades 1 through 12 -- had to learn the location of these 27 countries on a map, their capitals and draw and identify their flags. They also worked in pairs, interviewing different people about their country.

The students learnt not just history and geography but culture, traditions, language. What an experience! This activity drew the entire unit together for one activity. We learnt team work, leadership, sharing, initiative, budgeting.

We made sure every major landmark and its history were covered. One which stands out for me specially was the visit to ground zero in New York. The new towers were just beginning to be built. As we walked around, we saw a Callery pear tree. It had survived the Twin Tower attack, and a lightning strike. I took a picture next to it. We seemed to understand each other. Both of us rose from the ashes.

Every experience was turned into a learning opportunity.

For Maths, we learned distance, time and speed by noting the time of departure from one city and arrival at the next. Noting the distance travelled we calculated the speed of the train.

The students were asked to photograph different landforms they passed during the travel. We also learned to calculate the amount of milk the tigers (in the circus) needed in a week, or the pounds of meat needed to feed the lions.

We as a school had turned into event managers for a wedding. Another time, a little after I published my first book, a student of mine wanted to publish his book. He was seven years old and we did a book launch exactly as I had described mine. It was that narration that motivated him to write. Here’s the story.

In the beginning of 2012, I told my class that I would leave for India on a short visit. I told them it would be for my grandson’s baptism and that I was working on a book that would be published in India around the same time.

One voice: Why can’t you publish it here?

Correct answer: Because I want to be with MY children for this big occasion.

The other answer: Because the publisher is an Indian (a white lie).

I chose the second answer.

I couldn’t look the seven-year-old in the eye and tell him I would prefer to do this with my own children.

He kept quiet. Days went by. As the day of departure drew near, my excitement mounted and I couldn’t hide it. My students picked it up. Many expressed that they would have loved to come with me. I would have loved to take them, too. Battle of Heart vs Head. Head won.

I left. Published. Got back.

The whole class was waiting to hear more about the book than the baptism of my grandson. The class sat in rapt attention as I narrated the entire event, press meet, book signing etc. Then the same boy who had asked me why I was going to India asked, "Can I also publish a book?"

This is a teacher’s opportunity. I said, "Of course you can. But you must first write." He just nodded. And was quiet. There the topic ended or so I thought. The following week, after the long train run, I was in class, not feeling great. I had left my heart back in Chennai with my grandson and I forgot to pick it up when I returned. Sigh!

The students started trickling in one by one. (Punctuality is a quality I had to struggle enforcing). This particular seven-year-old walked in and gave me a folded sheet (or so I thought). It was actually tied together with a ribbon. The first page said: RUDY / Written and Illustrated by Matthew. He said with all seriousness, "It's my book. I want to publish it."

I turned the page and the inside cover had these words: Dedicated to my teacher Ms. Manna.

I felt tears and emotion as though my name was called out by the President for an award for motivation. These are the moments that made my stay at the circus meaningful. The story was about his pet dog Rudy. I got the class together, decided to do the book launch. We made copies and we planned and held a book launch.

Book launch of seven year old Matthew

Recently, when there was some media attention on my circus days after a series of posts on a Facebook group, I began thinking about him. I wrote to his parents (his father was the Ring Master of the circus), asked them to talk to him and find out his favourite memory of me. He is now a teenager. The mother wrote back and said that when they asked him his favourite memory of me, in typical teenage ways he said, ‘the book publishing’, and refused to elaborate.

That moment, I knew that the spontaneous decision I made to publish Matthews's Rudy was a masterstroke.

There was never a dull moment in the circus. Life for me was lonely. I hadn't seen my sons for years and wasn't able to attend my mother's funeral. I learned to hide my pain and sadness in a pile of lesson plans.  I prayed for respite, none came. I hung in there. I'm resilient, persevering and daring.

Was life perfect? No.

Did I make mistakes? Yes. Huge.

Do I regret? No. It’s made me the beautiful person I am.

After a teaching career of over 35 years, both in the country and abroad, Manna Abraham is now spending time as a trainer in English language and family & relationship counsellor in India.

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