The following column was written by Dan Roberts as part of a series published in the Jakarta Globe Newspaper in 2012. You can read Part 1 of this series here.
As a teenager and with a group of friends, we found a way to combat poverty that made sense for us. Fast forward a few years to university: I’d graduated high school with average grades and made some slightly above average achievements in extra curricular activities, but I was most proud about what my band had done with the profits from our music concerts. I felt as though we’d actually made a difference in the world. And that felt good. That being said, no one in their freshman year of college really cared about hearing your stories of donating a few hundred bucks to an orphanage, so these moments slowly faded into memories.
I quickly joined the rest of my peers in obsession with what “show” we’d get cast in (did I mention I went to theater school?) and whose fake ID looked the most original to buy beer on the weekend. I got into theater because I liked the attention you got on stage. It made me feel good about myself and I wanted to be a movie star. Although, for some reason you weren’t supposed to admit that, so I told people “I wanted to make a decent living working in the arts,” but really, I wanted to be a movie star.
It wasn’t long after I began “crafting my art” that a feeling of emptiness started creeping up. Something was missing in my life, but I didn’t know what. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the “It” I’d witnessed in Indonesia. Why was the government not doing anything about the “It” problem? Why weren’t all the wealthy people doing something to solve “It”?
Why wasn’t I doing something about “It”?
Shortly after “It” started to consume my conscience, I learned about another person trying to do his part in changing the world.
Paul Miller was a clown. He was trying to help kids in inner city Chicago succeed by teaching them self-esteem through circus. It just so happened that my school was teaching circus for a semester to teach actors how to perform without their mouths. My lust for performance was revived. When the unit was over, my professor suggested I get a hold of his friend, Paul Miller. An upper classman from my university took me to Paul’s school — it was then that the first volume of my life was complete and the second began to write itself.
Paul’s organization was called CircEsteem and they operated out of a community center in a predominately African immigrant neighborhood. My first day of volunteering for Paul’s organization was, at very least, enlightening. There were groups of children from opposite sides of the city and opposite sides of the economic spectrum working together as a team, as partners and most importantly, as friends. Paul had really “tough” kids wearing red noses and practicing clown falls. What was this amazing vehicle of reaching children that he’d created? Why wasn’t everyone spreading peace throughout the world with circus?
The haze of amazement was abruptly shattered towards the end of the class, when a 14-year old girl burst into fury, yelling obscenities and storming out of the gym. Paul immediately chased after her. Shocked and silenced having never seen a child treat their teacher in that way before, a colleague leaned over and told me not to worry about it, “She does that all the time. She didn’t want to walk on the big balance ball.”
I watched as Paul chased after her, acknowledged her anger and encouraged her to reach her full potential. It was that moment that the magic of social circus made sense to me. Paul wasn’t talking to her about walking on a balance ball, he was talking to her about life through the veil of a circus trick. The next four years, I was deeply and completely devoted to this program. I watched as that angry, scared and confused young girl grew into a strong, intelligent and powerful young woman. There were many other success stories that I witnessed at Paul’s CircEsteem. However, it was during this journey that I also learned one of the hardest lessons when working with at-risk children.
That lesson is that they are actually at risk. No matter how hard you try, the hours, days, weeks and months that you devote to them, you will fail some of the time. Some children will get sucked into the backwards system, some will make bad choices and some won’t survive because of it. We lost many children along the road at CircEsteem, some left the program and had their lives taken away from them. But, despite the pain, we feel when we lose some, the hope is that the children you help outnumber the children you can’t help. And even more so, the hope is that while some of the kids might never reach their full potential and thrive into positive contributing citizens, at least you’ve made an impact in their lives positively, even if temporarily.
As soon as I discovered social circus, I forgot about my dreams of being a movie star. I only went to class because I knew my folks wouldn’t have allowed me to quit. But sitting in Shakespearean Literature and Ensemble Singing class gave me time to dream about how I was going to change the world. I wanted to build a social circus, just like CircEsteem and the many other wonderful programs I was introduced to, but in Indonesia.
I believed that this might be the answer to that looming “It.” I watched kids in America change their lives because of learning how to juggle, maybe I could help children in Indonesia do the same thing. I spent several years learning everything I could learn from Paul and his growing circus program until eventually it was time for me to take my show on the road.
Finding My Nose, Part 1
Finding My Nose, Part 3