Planting Kudzu

Kudzu is a climbing, semi-woody, perennial vine in the pea family. Once kudzu is established, it grows rapidly at a rate of up to a foot a day, and can be almost impossible to remove.

When I got back into the juggling community in 2011, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that my juggling was nothing particularly special, if it ever had been. I am better than the average guy who picks up three tennis balls at a party to show off, but I can stand in the middle of a juggling festival doing my best work, and nobody will blink an eye. But I also quickly realized I was enjoying the community, and started trying to find other ways to exert my juggling energy that wouldn’t involve constantly bending over to pick up things I’d dropped. My daughter was in third grade at the time, and I decided to try to teach juggling at her school. I met a shocking amount of red tape and bureaucracy. When I finally fought through it, I was able to teach a session of six classes to a group of primarily third graders. We had a lot of fun, and they definitely learned about juggling, but it was also clearly a challenge for all of them. When the session came to an end, Only one kid was really juggling, which was a little disheartening. For good measure, it then turned out that we were able to move my daughter into a different school, and the previous school tore down the building where I had been teaching. So I was going to need to start all over if I wanted to continue to teach juggling to kids. Luckily, I found her new school to be much more accommodating; they were excited to have me teach a juggling “academy,” where academies are basically electives offered to fourth through eighth graders.

A small raindrop falls, and a downpour begins

In the fall of 2011, the first session of my academy was offered. I volunteered to teach up to fifteen kids, but when faced with alternatives like photography, stage crew, cooking, Zumba, and many more, only nine kids chose to take my academy. Not really a problem; nine sounded like a nice number, particularly while getting my feet wet. There were no fourth graders at all; the group tended to be on the older end of the spectrum. So I started my journey with six boys and three girls. Two of the boys could juggle before we started, one of them quite well. We started at the beginning, working on the proper way to throw and catch a single ball. We used russian balls I had made, and other props donated through the IJA’s YEP program. Some students moved slowly, others moved quickly, but everyone was enjoying themselves, especially me. After the first few classes, most of the kids were able to do a three ball cascade. Some were braving onward to four balls, others to balls and clubs, some working on tricks. A few decided juggling was a nice place to visit, but they didn’t want to live there, and started to spend most of their time on balancing tricks rather than juggling. This wasn’t a problem; my real goals had much less to do with having them juggle than having them learn to persevere in the face of something challenging, learn discipline, and feel pride and accomplishment when they managed to do something most people can’t. Eventually I decided it was time to spring my real hidden agenda on them: I wanted them all to perform at a school assembly. Some of them were natural hams and loved the idea. Others were hesitant or downright terrified. My policy then and now was that I won’t make any kid get up on stage, but I will actively encourage them all to do so, even if it is outside their comfort zone. They all agreed to at least entertain the idea, and we began focusing on preparing for the show.

As the show approached, we caught a stroke of luck. I secured nominal funding to bring in guests to help perform or instruct, but most of the people I contacted were unavailable or uninterested. But as the session wound down, Kyle Johnson returned to the Bay Area after traveling around Europe and the northwest United States. I was excited to give the kids a chance to work with him. He arrived just in time to make the last class of the session; the day of our performance. Notably, the day of our performance took place before the students submitted their preferences for the Winter 2011 academy session. And I had a plan…

As the day of our show arrived, a few kids grew cold feet. One boy decided he really wasn’t ready and didn’t want to juggle on stage, but when I asked him if he would be our master of ceremonies and announce the acts, he was willing to get up on stage and do so. At the very last minute, a girl decided she was too uncomfortable and couldn’t do it. But the show went on, with the other seven students performing. Several students did an act around balancing. One boy did a lively variety of three ball tricks. Another did a three ring color change, which was a definite crowd favorite with an audience of young students. The finale involved two boys passing balls, and then my “ringer” student juggling clubs on a unicycle. The crowd went wild and was tremendously supportive. I then took the microphone to tell them a story. I explained how I took lessons from a guy named Kyle Johnson, who was voted twelfth in the 2010 Top Forty Jugglers poll. I then pointed out that when Kyle started juggling, he was older than every single kid who performed that day. The message wasn’t lost upon them. I said, “I really wish I could help you understand what a wonderful performer Kyle is, but you’d really have to see it to believe it. … So… would anyone like to see it? How would you guys like to see Kyle perform?” The kids gasped in surprise, and were treated to Kyle performing his act for the entire student body. The response was immediate and intense; the room buzzed with chatter and excitement. Kyle then joined us for our final class. It was a wonderful opportunity for my students, and a great way to end the Fall session. I spoke to every student and asked them, “So now that you did it, you got up there and performed, are you glad you did it?” Every performer, no matter how reluctant they were beforehand, said that without a doubt they were glad they had done it.

And then the signups for the Winter session happened…

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube

Mission accomplished. The second time around, with the wisdom acquired in my Fall session, I told the faculty member administering the academy program that it might be best to lower my class size limit from fifteen to twelve. Apparently it was too late for that; with the excitement generated by our assembly performance, There were fifteen kids, and a sixteenth later joined in the middle of the session. Eleven boys, five girls. This time students ranged from fourth through eighth grade, tending towards the lower side. As our session got underway, almost every time I was on campus, I was stopped by a parent or faculty member. The message was consistent: I had created a monster. “Everywhere I look, kids are juggling.” “The kids are all talking about juggling.” “Groups of kids are taking their recess time to go to the gym and juggle.” My class was incredibly fun, and extremely terrifying. Sixteen kids is… a lot. Realistically, it was too many. There were weeks I’d get home and realize there was some particular student I failed to even speak to that day. Especially with the younger students, many were having more difficulty learning three balls, and needed more individual attention. I might have drowned, but I got help from several brave individuals. Kyle came to help us for two classes. Matt Hall, the Juggle Sensei, came to help one week, and introduce the kids to cigar boxes, diabolo, and tennis balls and can, as well as more traditional club work. The father of one of the students came for a day to help as well. The range of skill levels widened quickly; while some kids were still struggling with three balls, others were devouring juggling as quickly as I could feed it to them, learning various tricks and starting to work on five balls. It was bedlam. And it was incredible.

I was planning on placing a wholesale order for juggling equipment, but I needed to order $150 worth of equipment to get wholesale pricing. Since I only had about $100 in equipment in mind, I sent a note to my students and their parents. The holidays were approaching, and I figured perhaps a few of them would want to buy their own equipment, getting me to the $150 mark. The response was shocking. When the dust cleared, I placed an order for $355 worth of equipment, and ended up with my family room filled wall to wall with individual orders for students. I got to play Secret Santa, conspiring with parents and making deliveries to surprise their kids with juggling balls, rings and clubs. By mid-January, I placed another order for over $400 for supplies for the kids, and for teaching my classes. I had been teaching with homemade russian balls, they were taking a beating, and I was tired of spending my nights patching holes with a glue gun.

Once again, we planned to perform in an assembly. Some of the kids were begging for the opportunity, others were firmly against the idea. Planning a performance was particularly challenging, given the size of the class and the difficulty of me working with each student individually. Three of the fourth grade boys would begin each class by finding a secluded spot and working tirelessly on a group juggle passing trick they planned to perform. The Karamazovs had nothing to fear, and their trick was looking extremely rough around the edges. I kept having to explain that juggling doesn’t usually involve much diving. But they were insistent that this was what they were going to do. Another girl, “Anna,” learned a cascade easily enough, but then lost all interest in toss juggling when she saw me (badly) doing a ring isolation trick one day. From that point on, she would spend the majority of every class working on her ring isolation, until the classes when Kyle joined us and taught her some other contact juggling tricks. We ended up deciding to pair her with another girl who was going to do 3 ring juggling, culminating with a pulldown. One boy and one girl, “Ellen,” each independently decided that they weren’t comfortable with where they were at, and weren’t going to perform. The rest of the boys were… middle school boys. They were very excitable, very anxious to perform, and entirely unwilling or unable to commit to what they were going to do or how they were going to be grouped into acts. Despite several lessons from both Kyle and myself about how you should really stick to tricks you are very confident you can do, and you should really have a plan, they were all over the map. On the day of the show, as we were about to move backstage, one boy asked, “Should I bring three or four balls with me?” When I asked, “Well, how many are you going to perform?”, his answer was of course, “I don’t know. I haven’t really decided yet.” And amidst all of this chaos, there was one other girl in the class, “Denise.” She was a pleasure to be around, but extremely shy. She was very uneasy at the idea of getting on stage, but agreed to do it because she could go on stage with Ellen. So when Ellen backed out, Denise also decided she wasn’t willing to perform. But the day of the show, she appeared while we were gathering to go backstage. I asked her if she was really sure she didn’t want to give it a shot. She said, “I don’t want to go on first,” to which I replied, “Then you certainly don’t have to. We can move you somewhere else, or group you in with one of the other acts.” I was a bit caught off guard when she responded with, “Can I go last?” I’m not sure she fully considered the fact that the last act is often perceived to be the finale, but if that is what it was going to take to make her comfortable, so be it. So we changed the plan, and our last act was going to be Denise stretching her comfort zone to its limits, performing with one of my boys who was making great progress and planning on doing clubs.

The show went on. It was crazy and disorganized, but it happened, and the students loved it. My ring juggling girl and Anna the contact juggler went on first, and quietly stole the show. The kids cheered for the ring isolations and pulldown, but when Anna started doing enigma variations that I wish I could do myself, the audience was gasping audibly. My fourth grade boys not only didn’t dive around the stage trying to do their group juggle, but performed their trick so well that they encountered a new dilemma: they hadn’t planned on how or when they would stop. This eventually became apparent, and I gracefully ended their act for them. Act three was an army of boys doing a wide array of three and four ball tricks. And then our finale. My club juggler did a fine job. Denise decided she was too nervous to do the balancing she had practiced, so she improvised and did some one ball tricks. Since her one ball tricks weren’t particularly planned out or practiced, it was a bit rough around the edges, but she stuck with it, and I heard her name called from the audience. Afterwards, most of the kids were ecstatic. I tracked down Denise and asked her, “Now that it is over, are you glad you did it?”

“No. I was horrible. Everyone hated me.”

My heart sank. I felt horrible. I immediately assured her that was not true, and I had specifically heard the audience cheering for her by name, all the while feeling like perhaps I was horrible for talking her into doing this. I sent her a note that night telling her how proud I was of her for doing something that she knew was outside her comfort zone. I tried to reassure her that long after the juggling itself has passed, the day will come when she’ll need to get up in front of a crowd. And when that day comes, she’ll be able to remember that she got up in front of a crowd, did something she knew she was extremely uncomfortable doing, and life went on. I got back a smiley note, and decided her life wasn’t actually ruined.

The next morning I was approached by one of my daughter’s teachers to congratulate me on the performance. But in particular she said, “I don’t know how you did it. When Denise came out on stage, my jaw dropped. I don’t think you understand; just a year ago, she wouldn’t even look you in the face when she spoke to you. She was beyond shy. And when I saw her up on stage performing, it brought a tear to my eye.” And perhaps more than at any point before, it really hit me what I’m doing there. I could juggle all day, throw my best tricks, and it really wouldn’t make a difference. But what I’m doing with these kids is most definitely making a difference.

When I was teaching myself to juggle in high school, and Anthony Gatto was wowing the world as a little boy in short shorts, I figured that was what I wanted to do. I was going to be a technical juggler extraordinaire, win a championship, etc. etc. Well, that didn’t happen, and it isn’t going to happen. I’m trying to qualify seven balls for the first time these days, and I’ll probably get it eventually. But that isn’t what juggling is about for me anymore. Juggling is about a lot of other things for me now. Like:

  • My spring session has started. I told the administrator I really couldn’t take more than twelve kids. I have nineteen. Twenty-nine kids put juggling as their first choice, so he had to deal with lots of impatient students
  • Seven of my students are returning customers who already took one of my first two sessions, but were so excited they wanted to take it again. One wrote an impassioned letter to the administrator explaining how he’s more excited about juggling than he’s ever been about anything. Another tried to get into my academy by gaming the system; this eighth grade boy submitted a priority list that started with juggling, then went on to include Girl’s Basketball, sixth grade cooking, and two other things he couldn’t legally take, leaving juggling as his only legal option.
  • I agreed to take on the larger number of students after speaking to my two eighth graders. I explained to both of them that if I insisted on trimming down the numbers, then the returning students would likely be removed, and that would include both of them. I told them the only way I could see trying to make this work would be if they would step up to help me teach the newcomers. They didn’t see this as a penalty, a threat, or even a challenge. They saw it as a reward. They were excited about the idea, and couldn’t wait to get started.
  • When some of my previous students couldn’t take the academy again, they were disappointed that they wouldn’t have a regular place to juggle. I now host an open juggling club at the same school, immediately after class ends after school. It has gotten a steady flow of students who come to practice and learn. Last week, Kyle Johnson was surrounded by much of the girl’s basketball team, all learning to juggle.
  • The head of physical education at the school dropped in to tell us, “You guys are miracle workers. We have kids here that have gone through years of PE, struggling with everything we try to teach them, and they are walking around juggling after one or two lessons with you. I have no idea how you’re doing it, but you’re changing everything.”
  • Multiple parents have told me their children get home from school and immediately run for their juggling balls to practice.

 

I could go on and on and on. You probably figured that out by how long I’ve already gone on. I am a software engineer by trade, but I find myself spending my work weeks waiting for Friday afternoon when I get the opportunity to teach these kids. To watch them push their limits, hear their shrieks when they do something they didn’t think they could do, to see them grit their teeth and perform no matter how nervous they may be. For many of us, juggling is just a hobby. Something fun or silly we do to amuse ourselves and our friends. But teaching juggling to these kids has reminded me that it can really be so much more. It is magic to them; a spark of something they’ve seen but never thought they could do, and when they realize they can, it is priceless. Most jugglers I’ve met are pretty friendly, and happy to help others. But if you haven’t done so in a while, when the opportunity to teach someone new to juggle arises, don’t miss that chance. I’ve planted some kudzu at my daughter’s school, and I don’t think they’re ever going to get rid of it.

Quotes above are often paraphrases; I didn’t have the foresight to actually document the quotes along the way, but I think I captured the spirit of them, and apologize if I misrepresented anyone. I also apologize for not having pictures or video to offer; school policy prohibits it. All children’s names have also been changed for privacy reasons. I do want to take a moment to thank a few people who have helped me turn this crazy idea into a passion that I can’t get enough of. The Nueva School for giving me the opportunity to teach such fantastic kids in such a beautiful, nurturing setting. Kyle Johnson, Matt Hall, and Bob and Trish for sharing their patience, skills, and knowledge with these kids. And any of you I convince to help in the future; Bri and Brian are planned for later this session. Paul Arneberg, founder of the Jugheads Youth Juggling Company, for his inspiration and guidance in Rochester last summer. Lou DeLauro and Jen Slaw for their tireless work with the Juggling Life nonprofit. It is a beautiful model for what is possible when you teach kids to juggle. All my fellow YEP representatives, for their enthusiasm and camaraderie, sharing stories and tips on how to best implement a youth-oriented juggling program. Higgins Brothers, The Bag Lady, and Gballz for donating props and services for my classes. And perhaps most of all, to all my students, for keeping me young and laughing. Friday can’t come soon enough.

Dave Pawson

Dave returned to the world of juggling in 2010 after a 20 year hiatus. He currently chairs the Board of Directors of the IJA, teaches juggling to middle school kids, and is a spectacularly average juggler. In his real life, he lives in the Bay Area, CA and is a software engineer, working on Yahoo! Fantasy Sports.

Comments 0

  1. this is amazing. i bet you can’t wait for one of these kids to be on a big(er) stage some day. 😀 All the best of luck to them 🙂 [and practice]

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