by Donna Wood-Babcock

In November of 1981, just a little over 30 years ago, I graduated from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Clown College. That was a big deal for me because ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a clown, a Ringling Brothers Circus Clown. So the fact that I'd made it through Clown College was phenomenal. I worked with the best trainers, I had most talented classmates and I was an eager, obedient student. I jumped through every hoop that they asked me to....yes, sometimes literally and now it was graduation night and I was so excited because graduation at Clown College is a performance and all of our friends and family come to see the show. My parents and sister and brother-in-law came from New York to Florida to see me. But not only that graduation also serves as an audition, you see the producers of Ringling Brothers come and they sit in the front row and all the students have to wear numbers on our costumes and the producers take notes about what number clowns they like and what number clowns they don't like. It's a little bit nerve wracking but we had a big show to get through and for me the show went great. Okay, I stumbled a little bit on the top of the pyramid, but I jumped out of the crowded clown car with comic grace and I flew through the air on a cable in the trampoline act and I got a big laugh. I got lots of laughs. It was fun.

I was happy and I was proud and I was just on cloud nine when the show ended. We were all on cloud nine when the show ended, but you see we couldn't celebrate until we packed up all of our belongings because we didn't know who was going to be allowed back in the arena the next day. The day after graduation is contract day and that's the day when they tell you who's getting a job on the circus. And the way they handled contract day in 1981 was that they told us all to wait in our apartments and if nobody knocked on the door by 5:00pm then you would know that you didn't get a contract and you needed to move out the next day. That is really how they handled it. But my roommate Barbara and I were not worried. We knew we were at the top of our class, we had had nothing but encouragement from our coaches, so we made a big breakfast and waited for the knock on the door. Before long we heard a car pull-up and then we heard footsteps go right past our door and we heard the knock a couple of doors down. Then when the car pulled away, we peeked out our door and these were courtyard apartments, so we could see everyone else cracking open their doors and peeking out and we scurried into the courtyard and said "What happened? What happened what happened?" "Oh they took Kurt and Disco!" "Oh that's great! I'm so happy for those guys!" then we all went back to our apartments and waited for the next car. This went on throughout the day and you could feel as every car would leave that the energy was shifting. We weren't so enthusiastic for our classmates anymore and our anxiety level was rising.

Finally, about four o'clock the knock came to our door. I raced to the door and I opened it up and Ruthie, one of our clowning coaches was standing there, but she was crying and she said, "I'm sorry Donna, but we're here for Barbara." And Barbara and I just looked at each other, we had never even considered that they wouldn't just take us both together. Then Ruthie said, "And darlin', this is the last car, we're all done." And they left.

Well, this time I didn't scurry out to the courtyard to see my friends. I collapsed on the couch and I sobbed and I asked the universe "Why? Why did I get this desire as a little kid and why was this path laid out so clearly for me and why throughout my whole life did every door toward clowning open up so easily? This was my destiny. I was meant to be a Ringling Brothers Circus clown and now, just as I'm opening up the last door it gets slammed in my face!" It didn't make any sense at all. I could not understand it.

About an hour later Barbara came back and she was in tears. She didn't get a contract either. They had taken her into the office to tell her that if someone quit the show, she would be considered as an alternate.

We drank heavily that night. Everybody drank heavily that night. It was the weirdest energy, with half of the class excited about this new adventure in their lives and half of the class dumbstruck and wondering what was next for us and we were all trying to take care of each other. At one point my friend Larry said to me, "Well since you didn't get a contract, what are you going to do?" And I realized I had no idea. My whole life I had envisioned a life on the circus. I didn't have fantasies of a husband with a briefcase and a house and a picket fence. I dreamed of living on the circus train and building giant foam props with my loved ones. All I could do was to go home with my parents and try to figure something out.

The next day we were all sitting on the curb with our luggage waiting to be picked up and my friend Ted came out. He hadn't gotten a contract either, and he was wearing a child's Halloween clown costume. He had the plastic clown mask strapped to his face and he'd pinned this little mini costume to his clothes and he said, "Hey, great news everybody! I changed my costume and make-up and I got a contract with Hoxie Brothers Circus!" You see, Hoxie Brothers had been held up to us as the example of failure. We had been taught that if you didn't get a contract with Ringling, your only choice was to work on a "mud show" like Hoxie where you live on the back of a truck with toothless escaped convicts. No place at all for a young, single girl. I didn't know that there was anyplace else to go. We had been taught that if you didn't work for Ringling there were no other clowning jobs out there. I had been a Ringling Bros. Circus fan my whole life. I was eighteen years old. I trusted them. I believed that.

So the next weeks and months were confusing and depressing, but I stand here before you, 30 years later, and I am almost over it. I have some perspective now and I realize that the circus and Clown College have given me everything I need. As a child the circus provided a colorful fantasy world for me to escape to when I needed to get away from the repressed environment around me. As a teenager clowning gave me an identity. I was the girl who wanted to be a clown. Clown College gave me something to work toward, a reason to graduate, and it allowed me to ignore all the teen drama around me because I knew I had something better waiting for me. As an adult I've been given a career and long solid friendships. And opportunities, I've been to Italy, Paris and Hong Kong because of my clowning knowledge and relationships.

It sucked to not get a contract after Clown College. If I could change it, I would. I still want to live that life I imagined, but I also realize that attending Clown College was a life changing gift and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.