Juggling has been part of the Fayetteville, Arkansas, ALLPS program (Agee-Lierly Life Preparations Services Center) for the past 20 years. ALLPS is an alternative learning high school program for kids who have not necessarily been successful in other high school settings, and it has been helping kids stay in school since 1972. Recently I enjoyed a conversation about juggling with several students enrolled in ALLPS and their Drama and Circus Arts teacher, Joel Henderson. I found their enthusiasm for juggling impressive, as well as the remarkably positive impact it’s had on the kids’ lives and school careers.
Henderson, who has been teaching in the Fayetteville High School system since 1995, describes the ALLPS program, saying:
“We do a lot of credit recovery… This school has got a lot of project-based things going on, where a kid doesn’t necessarily have to do an essay, but maybe a piece of art using recycled materials, or they juggle… We teach holistically. It’s not just the core academics; it’s whatever else they need. Whether it’s communication or juggling, we’re going to find out how to give them the skills that we think they need, and maybe they think they need, as well.”
The Drama and Circus Arts Program at ALLPS is going strong. Out of 20 kids in this year’s program, 17 learned to juggle. According to Henderson, two others learned skills such as poi.
Mr. Henderson is a character and an influence on his students. Recipient of the IJA’s 2008 Excellence in Education Award, he is a self-described “long-haired, fuzzy guy with tattoos and earrings.” Picture a jovial, juggling cross between a Hell’s Angel and Santa Claus. Long before he ever picked up Juggling for the Complete Klutz, Henderson was a juggler of sorts. As a teenager, he learned a little contact juggling from his father. In college he performed on the ROTC’s exhibition drill team using 12 lb. rifles. A three-time state champion tomahawk thrower, Henderson taught himself the cascade when he was hired to do promotions for a local beer company, saying, “I dressed up like a mountain man… I did all sorts of trick throws with the tomahawks, but I wanted to be able to juggle tomahawks for my entry onto the stage, then deliver three of them onto a target rapid-fire out of a juggle. Ultimately, it was a fairly spectacular entry, and a lot of fun.”
When asked, the kids unanimously proclaimed Mr. Henderson their favorite teacher. Junior Lynzee Spurlock said, “It’s the class I look forward to. It is the most fun … Juggling is definitely the coolest thing I’ve learned in high school. And like I said, he is my favorite teacher.” When asked about his resounding “favorite teacher” status, Henderson responded:
“I think one of my strengths in education is that I don’t hide from my own past. I put it out there and try to use it as an example, either good or bad. I don’t let them hide from what they’re doing, whether it’s right or wrong. If they’re doing something right, I’m going to sing about it. And if they’re doing something wrong, I’m going to get real close and tell [them] what [they’re] doing wrong. I believe our students in particular, while they are alternative, appreciate that sort of basic honesty from anybody, but especially from teachers. It’s not always been their experience.”
Many students were skeptical at first about juggling, even kids like sophomore Martesh Logan, who had previous exposure to the circus arts when he learned to unicycle around the age of eight. Junior Lenille Stacey described his initial impression, “I ain’t even gonna lie. When I first heard it was juggling I was like, ‘Nah, juggling sounds pretty lame.’ But then I actually started doing it and it was awesome. (Juggling) is the only thing I like about this school… We had that one class where we could just chill and do something fun.”
All of the kids agreed that juggling turned out to be more than they expected. Junior Levi Foot said,”The biggest thing that surprised me was how much faster it made me… in normal life. When I drop something now, it’s just ‘Oh, I got it!'” Lenille responded, “Like spider senses. It made my awareness better, too. Being able to react to things quickly.” Martesh added, “It helped me the same in basketball. Now I can dribble with my left hand, and lay the basketball up with my left hand instead of just my right hand.” Lynzee came to a slightly different conclusion, saying, “It just amazed me that I actually learned how to do it. You watch other people, and it just looks so hard! It took me a lot longer to learn than everybody else, but yeah, I finally got it, so it’s definitely fun.”
I was able to see Lynzee’s hard work and dedication firsthand. Roughly a month before the interview I visited ALLPS to do a demonstration and juggle with the kids. At that time, Lynzee had spent the entire school year working on the 3 ball cascade. Fast forward to the day of the interview and she had burst off of her plateau, showing off a number of 3 ball tricks, 6 ball passing, and steals. Even though she “has a lot of it down now,” she still practices every night before going to bed. Hard work motivated by juggling progress was a common theme, as Lenille describes, “(Mr. Henderson) just kept saying don’t stop no matter if you mess up or not, just keep trying. That’s what I did.”
At this high school juggling is not only instilling a work ethic, it’s undeniably cool. Each of the students interviewed has taught at least one other person outside of Mr. Henderson’s class to juggle. Juggling is reaching into other areas of the students’ lives. An avid hackey-sacker, Levi was able to creatively incorporate juggling into a hobby he was already devoted to. He is now in the habit of juggling all the time, saying,”It’s a really satisfying feeling, when you can get a new trick. It’s kind of like any skill, you’re just proud of yourself… I do it at work, at home, at the grocery store. People think it’s amazing, like the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. They don’t realize how easy it is.” Lenille’s favorite thing to juggle is torches, but he settles for pool balls while on the job at The Boys and Girls Club. Lynzee happily shared that her juggling was the entertainment at her two-year-old niece’s birthday party, and said she regularly uses juggling as a method of stress relief.
Whether or not the kids realized it, juggling was helping them in other ways, too. Henderson explained that juggling had improved their scholastic performance, social skills, and self-esteem:
“They’re a pleasure. They are the absolute epitome of what an alternative student is. They are the ones who may lack discipline in some ways but then find it in others. At least a couple of my students have had some real difficulties, some real discipline issues. And I’m happy to say that I think juggling is a positive outlet. I’ve seen a couple of kids who’ve had some really tough times, have really good semesters this time. One of the big things, though, is I’ve had a couple of other teachers tell me it’s made a difference in the kids’ behavior in class. And nobody can argue about the boost in self-esteem they get by making themselves unique in this way. And I think that’s built on when they teach somebody else. Now they’ve not just made themselves unique, but they made somebody else special, too. That’s one of the things I love about it.”
Henderson’s plans for the future include incorporating more comedy skits, clowning, and circus-oriented short plays into the curriculum, to “bring it into the theater a little bit more.”
The students have future plans of their own. Martesh wants to learn clubs. Lenille wants to juggle more fire. Both Lynzee and Levi think it would be “awesome” to go to a big festival like the IJA. Levi envisions juggling as a permanent part of his life: “I think it’s really cool, and everyone I’ve talked to thinks it’s really cool that I got to learn an actual skill in school that I’m going to take with me for the rest of my life. I’m going to keep juggling forever, probably.” Lynzee agrees, adding, “I plan to juggle forever, too. Whether it’s just the three balls, or if I go higher than that that’d be great, but… I don’t know, I’m happy.”
Mr. Henderson summed up the program saying, “One of the cool things about ALLPS is that everybody here flies their freak flag just a little bit… I tell everybody I ran away from a circus to join a school.”
For more information about the ALLPS program, visit their website at: http://schoolcenter.fayar.net/education/components/sectionlist/default.php?sectiondetailid=100&category=253&PHPSESSID=6fe9e4df02825a6a865cf97e93549051