It was summer. I was five years old, and my mother had taken me to a park in Chattanooga, the town where I grew up, to paint banners for a kids’ parade taking place later in the week. I was on my hands and knees in the grass, smearing tempera paint over rolled-out expanses of white kraft paper, but my heart was elsewhere. It lay across the field and under a pavilion where a swarm of other kids—older kids—were tumbling on floor mats, juggling and clowning, teetering across low-slung tightropes. They were all a blur of giggles and flailing limbs and bright colors. They were having so much fun.
They were at circus camp.
I saw them perform a few days later in the kids’ village at the festival. It’s a hazy memory now, but I know they were all in costume, I know the crowd laughed and cheered for them, and I know all I wanted in the world at that moment was to one day be up on that stage, too.
The circus camp was held every summer, and my obsession was such that I—an infamously impatient child—was willing to wait two whole years until I met the minimum age requirement. But when the summer of my much-awaited seven-year-old eligibility finally dawned, so did tragedy: The man in charge of the camp had moved the operation to Europe somewhere—Brussels, maybe? It didn’t matter. I had waited more than one-fourth of my life for circus camp, and now it was gone.
I shunted the disappointment deep into my soul, where it lay dormant for the remainder of my childhood. I grew up, kind of. I went to college. I moved to Decatur. And it was here that a mural on the side of a building on East College Avenue called to me. “CIRCUS CAMP,” it read in bold, childish scrawl, buttressed by clown faces and an arrow pointing down a side street to the wonders beyond.
It was unrelated to the circus camp of my youth, I knew. But I felt like it was daring me—to nab some glimpse of what might’ve been, to seek revenge on my thwarted dream, or to at least finally disabuse myself of the nagging notion that, if given the early exposure I’d so craved, I might now be making my profession not as a stumbly writer but as a glittery, spandex-swathed acrobat swinging from the ceiling at every Cirque du Soleil show from here to kingdom come. I needed to know what I’d missed, needed to gauge the depth and width of this particular gaping hole in my existence.
Last fall, I finally caved in and called up Circus Camp director Tim Dwyer.
Not sure if this would be weird, but. Not sure if you have open spots, but. Not sure if I’d even fit on the equipment, but.
And so this is how I came to spend four and a half days over two weeks in late December under the makeshift big top of the Friends School gymnasium on Columbia Drive. Along with three dozen kids ages five to thirteen, I did morning warm-ups led by professional magicians, twisted my own balloon animals, turned cartwheels for the first time in nearly a decade, practiced ribbon-twirling routines to Justin Bieber songs, and generally brutalized muscles that I’d forgotten I had.
I was paired off into Group E with the oldest kids, ten and up, most of whom I still stood head and shoulders above. At twenty-six, I was technically old enough to be their (very young) mother, but mostly they just skeptically regarded me as they would any other weirdly tall thirteen-year-old clearly lying about her age.
Soon enough, we were taking turns attempting air splits on a low-hanging trapeze. I felt the piercing stare of a dozen tiny eyes set in tiny faces as I grunted and groaned my way onto the bar. I felt only marginally less like an ogre when it was time for the tightwire, a ten-foot length of metal cording strung two feet off the ground, which I gingerly trespassed while clutching the toothpick arm of a fifteen-year-old, ninety-seven-pound counselor-in-training, spluttering apologies under my breath the whole way.
Juggling, unicycling, magic tricks—I felt pretty inept at every task I attempted. And I was completely okay with that.
My much younger self wouldn’t have been so cool, though. At five—and even at the ripe, eligible age of seven—I was clumsy, inclined toward spastic stage fright, and possessed of a general inability to perform tasks that I was not immediately good at without melting down and wishing death upon my instructors. It has occurred to me that my mother, who knew all that better than anyone, might have considered those facts in light of my circus camp obsession and simply fabricated the “sorry, honey, dude moved to Europe” story in an act of preventative subterfuge.
She denies this, and I guess I believe her, but it’s for all those reasons that I’m now actually glad my circus camp dream was delayed for so long. If I’d gone when I most desperately wanted to, it would have likely joined all the other semi-debacles of childhood extracurricular activities gone awry: the jazz dance lessons I flubbed my way through, the three seasons of softball that involved balls hitting me nearly as often as I hit them.
And failure would’ve been the best-case scenario, really. Had I gone to camp and realized I was anything more than competent at any single skill taught there, I would have spent years laboring under the delusion that I had a future in the circus—kind of like the weekend my parents bought a badminton set and, after I knocked the birdie over the net a few times, my thoughts immediately turned toward the details of Olympic eligibility.
There was a big talent showcase the final afternoon of camp. Kids showed off on the aerial equipment, spun plastic plates on pointed wooden dowels, executed dizzying flips on the crash pads. Everyone took long, dramatic bows and hooted and hollered and clapped for one another, and I watched it all from the back of the tiny crowd. “Don’t you want to get up there?” some of the kids and counselors asked me. I shook my head. Finally, just watching was enough.
Rachael Maddux lives, writes, and occasionally indulges childhood fantasies in Decatur.
Illustration by Alison Seiffer