Back in the old days when we walked to school uphill both ways in snow knee deep, we teenagers had nothing better to do than to cruise the four-lane and eat burgers at the Burger Queen. We had a few game rooms, where for a quarter, we could play Ms. Pacman and Joust. We could always bat a dot back and forth on a game called Atari.
But we didn’t have iPods and iPhones and laptops and 3-D game systems. We just had each other face to face. “Message me” meant “Hey, sneak me a note across the room during Spanish class when the teacher isn’t looking.”
We also didn’t have Bonnaroo. I bet a lot more people I graduated with would have stuck around had they known the world would come to them.
What we had was the county fair—the highlight of every year.
When I was a little kid, my backyard swing set transformed into the Zipper and the Himalaya. And when the real fair rolled in every September, my cousins and I counted the quarters we had saved in the glass baby food jars we kept on my Mom Bell’s window edge.
I begged my parents to let me go every night. They didn’t. I always entered my artwork in the competitions, and I always won a ribbon. My Mom Bell pulled okra from her garden and slapped my name on the entry slip. I couldn’t wait to see if I won anything. I always felt as if her garden was mine. It was all of ours really.
But my feelings for the fair changed my senior year. It was one of the best days of my growing up years–and one of the saddest because it came to an end. I went with a group of my friends, all of us band geeks. The last night we vowed to stay until they shut it down.
And we did.
Sometime after midnight the carnies pulled the plug on the rides, and they let down the canvas covering their games. And the midway without its lights lost its magic.
We had a grand idea. “Let’s follow the fair to wherever it goes!” And, suddenly, the magic was back—but short-lived when we faced the reality that Monday morning we had to go back to school.
It’s true though. Every year some kid would run off with the carnival. It happened when I was in high school, and for years after I began teaching I always lost one or two who ran away. Kids today don’t go. They don’t need the fair anymore, and they don’t believe in magic.
I still believe in magic. I have a dreamer’s heart. It’s the one thing I hope I can pass on to my students. One of mine caught it. He ran away with the circus.
I have been so blessed to have had students in class who have gone to do great things in life, but I never expected to teach a student who would someday become an official Ringling Bros. clown.
A former journalism student of mine, Chris Sullivan joined me and my current newspaper staff for lunch Thursday when we celebrated the publication of our third issue.
Chris captivated me with his stories of being a part of the Greatest Show on Earth.
He never set out to be a circus clown, but his work with theater put him in the right place at the right time. He tried out but didn’t expect to get the job. He waited for the call. Meanwhile, he received a spiritual call to go to India to share his clown talent with orphaned children during a Vacation Bible School program. He answered that call, and when he returned, another call waited for him—an invitation to join the circus.
So now he lives his life traveling all over the nation on a circus train, living in a 5 x 7 room that he calls home. He has learned to simplify, simplify, simplify—not just materialistically but philosophically too. He focuses on his job at hand…publicizing the circus, helping transport the elephants to the arena, or meeting children during the pre-show. He lets his other worries go. He leaves them miles behind somewhere down the track.
Seeing Chris again was good medicine for a weary soul. He reminded me life doesn’t have to be so complicated and running away with the circus isn’t always a bad thing.
I doubt that I’ll be boarding the circus train anytime soon. Nor will I follow the fair.
But I do have a fascination with gypsies and Travellers. Ethnically, I don’t think I qualify to be either one, but who says I can’t use my imagination and run away with them in a story I write.
Ah, imagination. I hope my students never lose theirs. I’m so proud of Chris for following his dream and never betraying his imagination.
Sometimes it’s the student who teaches the teacher. Maybe it’s time I enjoyed my imagination again and let the magic lead me to a story I can treasure.