Clowns still aren't funny. But Michael Cook finds childhood enthusiasm is all in the hype
Roll up! Roll up! Class 6 are learning about the circus. The walls are covered with poster paint clowns. Books are filled with acrobat poems.
Knives stick out of the classroom wall, making the shape of a terrified dinner lady (not really).
This morning, though, the roar of the crowd and the smell of the lion dung are temporarily on hold. Instead, I play a numbers game with two reluctant arithmeticians. We pick three random digits and make the largest number possible. Then the smallest number possible. I'm sure the pleasure of mathematical enquiry is a joy we all share, but to be honest, I'm finding it heavy going. Give me a circus-related activity and yes, after a year of helping in the classroom, I think I could generate a mild buzz through my charges. But this dry old number-crunching is falling flatter than a butter-fingered trapeze artist without a safety net.
Let's be honest, it's not even as if the circus is that good. It hardly offers the 21st-century delights our children have come to expect. Big tops come without central heating or instant replays. Clowns aren't funny. And we have become suspicious of simple fun. Read an Enid Blyton story, and rosy-cheeked villagers greet the arrival of circus folk with smiles, waves and sticky buns for the elephants. Read today's newspapers and grumpy Nimbys call the bailiffs whenever three or more caravanners roll into town.
Circus was old-fashioned when I was young. We already had alternatives. If we wanted to see mangy, maltreated lions, we went to the zoo. If we wanted to see funny-looking old geezers in ridiculous clothes, we had Slade.
Of course, I have seen the circus before. For us Seventies kids, Boxing Day wasn't Boxing Day without a game of Kerplunk!, a power cut, then an unintelligible Italian clown called Charlie Caroli and that bloke with the budgies strutting on teatime telly. The bank holiday big tops have vanished from our screens, but still the circus evokes a primeval thrill within this infant class.
Later, as I cut and mount circus pictures the children have painted and listen in as Miss Cox extols the virtues of the phoneme of the week, I realise why. Miss Cox is genuinely enthused by "ee" and "ea" and, sensing this, the children share her passion. Suddenly I get it. It wasn't the po-faced clowns and the threadbare budgerigar acts that made circus what it was. It was the excitement. The thrills. The enthusiasm.
So, roll up! Roll up! See Poppy's dad explore the mystery of mathematics in front of your very eyes! Gasp as you choose three numbers of your very own! Be amazed as you make the hugest, most gigantic and the teeniest, tiniest numbers that you can! That's how you hype a maths game.
Michael Cook is a freelance copywriter and a parent helper at Ernehale infants school, Arnold, Nottingham, which his children, Alfie and Poppy, attend