October 30, 2009

Trapeze program at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington offers lessons in faith and trust

High above the ground, 13-year-old Irene Velicer begins to swing on the trapeze—part of an unusual and breathtaking physical education class at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

High above the ground, 13-year-old Irene Velicer begins to swing on the trapeze—part of an unusual and breathtaking physical education class at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BLOOMINGTON—As she climbed higher and higher, 13-year-old Delaney Halloran didn’t think about how she was taking part in one of the most unusual and breathtaking physical education classes in the archdiocese—and even in the United States.

The eighth-grade student at St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington just focused on climbing the 24 steps up the silver ladder toward the trapeze—a climb that left her above the nearby treetops and looking straight ahead at a blue sky marked with puffy white clouds.

As Delaney perched nervously on a small platform that overlooked the elaborate trapeze setup and the safety net below, she knew that her next step would be the one that would send an exhilarating mix of fear and adrenaline rushing through her body.

Moving to the edge of the platform, Delaney reached for the trapeze in front of her. Then she glanced at a second trapeze about 30 feet away, straight ahead of her. There, Janet French—a 54-year-old mother of three who is also the school’s physical education teacher—hung upside down, preparing for the moment when she would try to catch Delaney as the girl jumped from her trapeze.

While her classmates waited for their turn below, Delaney took a deep breath, tightened her grip on the trapeze and swung forward. Flying through the air, she let go of the bar and extended her arms—reaching, reaching, reaching toward French, who was swinging toward her from the opposite direction.

Lessons in faith and trust

There are many classes in schools that try to teach safety, self-confidence, faith and trust. It’s the rare class that teaches those lessons while students are swinging through the air on a trapeze.

Yet for the past 13 years, Janet French has made the trapeze program a part of her physical education curriculum for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. Charles Borromeo School.

During the week of Oct. 5, French once again trained students in the art and technique of being “high flyers”—a week of trapeze training that always culminates with the students, French and other professional trapeze artists performing a show for the school and the community.

“At least 25 kids get to be in the show,” French said. “They’re wearing safety lines the whole time, but we do it just like we would do a real trapeze show.”

The focus on safety is so complete that the high-flying students are harnessed and attached to safety lines at every turn, from the time they stand at the bottom of the ladder to the moment they land in the net and then return to the ground.

Still, the challenge remains. During one training session, students jumped from the platform, swung through the air and lifted their legs toward the trapeze in the hope of locking the back of their knees over the bar—a maneuver that left them hanging upside down.

“We talk about courage and facing your fears,” said French, a petite woman who has a touch of Peter Pan in her attitude and movements. “The worst part is climbing the ladder for the first time and reaching for the bar. The students go up there, and their whole body is shaking at first. Some fall down, but they get back up. And they do it. I’m just hoping they can gain self-confidence and improve their self-esteem.”

Caught up in the adventure

Eighth-grade student Irene Velicer remembers her frightening introduction to the trapeze.

“The first time I did it I was in the sixth grade,” recalled Irene, 13. “I was really nervous. The board was shaking. But as soon as I was able to grab a hold of the bar, I was able to steady myself. Since then, it’s been a lot of fun. I really like the feeling of flying through the air.”

Delaney Halloran smiled as she talked about flying on the trapeze.

“It’s pretty scary, but Mrs. French tells you what to do. And there’s the net,” Delaney said. “It’s really exhilarating.”

The stakes and the lessons increase when the training involves letting go of the trapeze and reaching out to be “caught” by a person on another trapeze.

French knows how hard that transition to trusting can be for students.

“They do have to trust you,” she said. “For some, the fear is so great that it takes them time to trust you. When they do trust you, it’s really fun.”

So are the moments when the students trust themselves.

“I had a girl once who reached out for the bar while I held onto her,” French recalled. “She was so nervous the platform was shaking. But by the end of the fourth day, she was doing the most difficult tricks that anyone had ever done here at St. Charles.

“And there was one eighth grader who was brand new here. She wasn’t really an athlete at all. But she was the best in her class at trapeze. Later, when she played volleyball, she said, ‘I’m not very good at sports.’ I reminded her how good she was on the trapeze. And she said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

Flying through the air

One of French’s favorite stories is how she became a professional trapeze artist and how the show became a signature event for the school.

After a trapeze program was started in Bloomington by a woman named Bernadette Pace, French joined it in 1991, viewing it as a fun activity to share with her then small children, Jake, Hannah and Leah. Drawing from her experience as a gymnast in high school and a diver in college, French immediately embraced the feeling of soaring through the air on a trapeze.

“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Just flying through the air and free-falling. You don’t get that feeling anywhere else. Only flyers understand it.”

Her daughter, Leah, now 26, added, “Every time you get up there, it’s scary. If it wasn’t still challenging, you wouldn’t still be doing it.”

French and her now grown children continue to be involved in the Bloomington High Flyers Circus. They have performed and led trapeze camps across the United States and in Canada, Japan and Puerto Rico. Her children also help her with the trapeze program at St. Charles Borromeo School every year.

“When the school hired me as a teacher, I brought up the notion that we should bring in the high-flying trapeze program and introduce it to our middle school students,” French said. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years. When the students start, it’s equal for everyone. No one is the star athlete.”

Yet every student has the opportunity to be a star, performing in front of a crowd, high in the sky.

“It’s something that most people never get the chance to do,” said Alejandra Hamilton, 13, an eighth-grade student. “Before this, I didn’t know what it was like to be on a trapeze. It’s nice to try something new, especially something that is so fun and exciting.” †

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