For the third year in a row, our oldest son spent a two-week session at camp, but the activities didn't exactly resemble what I remember from my summer camp days of years gone by – no arts and crafts table, no friendship bracelets and no hikes in the woods.
That's because they were too busy learning to be clowns.
Instead of a wooded outdoor area, Circus Campers, who signed up through the Greenbelt Recreation Department, reported each day to the Community Center gymnasium. As they entered the doors, they were greeted by an assortment of tools of the trade, arranged in stations around the gym.
If you stop by one of the subsequent camps this summer, don't be concerned about the walkers placed near the unicycles. They're simply the ingenious support systems beginners can use when first attempting the one-wheeled wonder.
Over the years, I've become more familiar with the circus lingo, and now I can accurately identify a rolla bolla, a diabolo and a rolling globe. (I used to call them 'that balance board thing,' 'the plastic yo yo with the string tied between two sticks' and 'the exercise ball you stand on.') I'm so much cooler now.
I'm not sure what other parents' goals are in sending their children to Circus Camp. But I'm quite certain I know what my own son gets out of it. Greg May, a former Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus performer, is also a magician, in my eyes at least. Over the course of one session of camp, he consistently transforms my son's end-of-the-school-year-exhaustion into a whirl of self-confidence, showmanship and enthusiasm.
Physically, our son was tired at the end of each camp day, but his spirit was more energized than ever. "How was your day?" elicited a more detailed answer during Circus Camp. Although during week two, while the campers were steadfastly preparing for the big show on the final day, the answers became a bit more cryptic – keeping a cover over the best 'gags,' so he could surprise us when we came to watch.
Honestly, I don't know how May does it. I've never seen him without a smile at the ready – greeting kids with a genuine joy that seems to be a core component of his spirit. Somehow, May teaches skills to these kids that go well beyond simply knowing how to balance on a board or walk on a rolling wooden spool.
When they come out walking on stilts or rolling by on a unicycle, the skill they've gained is secondary to the courage and confidence they display. Head down to the Community Center gym at the end of one of the sessions for the show, and you'll see what I mean.
A sea of kids' faces will greet you, literally beaming with determination and self-assurance. And with each small group performance, there's a constant stream of encouragement and applause coming from the campers watching.
Even if my son never paints his face and puts on a bulbous red nose of his own, I think he will remember his Circus Camp experiences for many, many years. I hope he recalls being part of a group where taking risks was at the heart of each daily experience and where confidence was gained at lightning speed. Best of all, I hope he appreciates a camp adventure led expetly by a man whose clown shoes would be impossible for anyone else to fill.
Dawn may reside in Greenbelt in real life, but online she lives at her blog, my thoughts exactly, where she chatters on about her funny kids, her NPR obsession and plenty of other randomness. She can also be found at 5 Minutes for Books, reviewing everything from contemporary fiction to children's literature.