Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity of joining the DC Bilingual Public Charter School at the Verizon Center for a visit to observe the Big Cats that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus incorporates into their current show Built to Amaze.
DC Bilingual is a D.C. Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school educating 339 Pre-Kindergarten three through 12th grade pupils. It is an English and Spanish language immersion institution that is part of the CentroNia network of bilingual educational programs. CentroNia was founded in 1986 by B.B. Otero, a well-respected community activist Mayor Vincent Gray appointed after being elected to be his Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. About 45 extremely enthusiastic and well-behaved DC Bilingual students attended the event with their teachers.
Upon being seated at the venue six of the Big Cats were sitting on steel raised platforms symmetrically positioned inside the perimeter of a ring covered by a metal frame. We felt incredibly privileged to be there because we were the only spectators in the entire arena. The tigers appeared exactly as their name describes; they looked perfectly like the animals people have as pets but at a much grander scale. Joining the Big Cats in the ring was Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda, the tiger’s trainer. I would learn later that Mr. Maluenda is the sixth generation of his family to be involved in the circus.
The Master of Ceremonies for the day’s event was Mr. Maluenda’s wife of 18 years Lucenir ‘Lu’ Viera de Souza. She asked her husband to describe the training process he goes through with the Big Cats. But when he started speaking into his microphone in English she immediately requested him to switch to Spanish. “After all,” Ms. Viera de Souza commented, “We are dealing with students form a bilingual school.” Mr. Maluenda then demonstrated to the kids the steps of teaching the tigers how to jump over a rail, offering chunks of high quality steak affixed to the tip of a long pole as rewards for following his instructions.
The students clearly understood every word of what the tiger trainer was saying and they eagerly responded to his remarks, raising their hands when they responded affirmatively to one of his questions. They even had the opportunity to ask him a few questions, again in Spanish.
At the end of the training exercise the press had the chance to talk to the two presenters from the circus. Ms. Viera de Souza explained to me that she and her husband have a wildly busy performance schedule. “We are traveling all year getting a four week break around November to return home,” she informed me. While on the road they are joined by their two children, one elementary school age and the other a teenager. “The circus is comprised of about 300 staff members,” revealed the tiger trainer’s spouse. "When we move across the country our train is the longest in the world at over two miles in length. Among the performers and support people are 30 kids. Barnum & Bailey is the only circus that provides a teacher with the students divided by grade level. There is even a nursery.”
I was amazed by the commitment this family had made to their profession. I inquired of Ms. Viera de Souza if it was worth it. “Oh yes,” she replied instantaneously. “When you see the smile on the faces of children you realize what a gift you have been given. You realize how fortunate you are to be able to bring a joyous occasion to others.”