BY TRICIA DESPRES | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

He was called distracted and a class clown and seemed often burdened with what many called “a delayed set of social skills.” But none of that seemed to matter the day eight-year-old Mason George walked into CircEsteem.

“Where I may have previously felt like an outsider everywhere else, I quickly found out that I was absolutely in the right place,” recalls George of that fateful day. “I could walk on the rolling globe and spin the spinning plate and juggle relatively well, but what was important was that I didn’t find any sort of bullying in this space. While I might not have had good chemistry with other students elsewhere, I was seen as a peer and a friend there. Everyone was there for the same reason.”

CIRCESTEEM’S 14TH ANNUAL SPRING CIRCUS

When: 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., April 18 and April 25; 3 p.m., April 19 and April 26

Where: Alternatives Inc., 4730 N. Sheridan

Tickets: $8-$35

Info: CircEsteem.org

George is now a thriving 22-year-old serving as a CircEsteem teacher and a stage manager for the upcoming CircEsteem Spring Circus. He also admits to being somewhat of an innocent bystander when it comes to studying some of the kids who walk into CircEsteem for the first time – kids that awfully remind him of himself at that age.

“I’m constantly seeing similarities in my past, in their present,” George says rather matter-of-factly. “I think it helps me empathize with some of them more. Just the other day, I was talking to some frustrated students who were having trouble mastering a skill. I guess I am at a bit of an advantage because I know what it is like for them, because I know what it was like for me.”

“Even the most amazing and accomplished jugglers will always drop a ball sometimes,” adds Pam Chermansky, a Marcel Marceau-trained performer and this year’s Spring Circus director. “Accepting that as a part of life is very healthy for kids, especially in this day and age.”

Utilizing circus skills such as acrobatics, trapeze, gym wheel, unicyling, clowning and juggling, students ranging from beginners to CircEsteem’s advanced performing troupe will not only show off their skills at the upcoming Spring Circus, but also indirectly show off how they have changed on the inside thanks to being a part of the CircEsteem community.

“The spring event is a culmination of the work that the kids who go to Saturday classes finally get to show off,” says Chermansky, who first got involved in CircEsteem when her own children began to take classed there. “It’s not only about juggling or walking the tightrope, but the performance aspect of it all. That’s the skill where these kids really learn how to open themselves up to. It’s about being able to laugh at ourselves sometimes, you know?”

Chermansky should certainly know all about that, as she herself serves as somewhat of a “clown-in-residence” at CircEsteem. “It’s just what I do,” she laughs. “I’m there to lift spirits and be somewhat of a mom figure to everyone there. I’m the person that goes around and makes jokes and wears silly clothes and does not mind being laughed at. That’s what it is all about.”

The annual event, which will showcase the talents of nearly 120 children, teens and young adults, will include some new features this year, with Chermansky saying she is all for letting the kids truly take charge of this year’s event.

“Everything we do goes back to our simple ideals of empowering kids and encouraging kids and showing each and every one of them that they really can do it, no matter what that ‘it’ is,” says Chermansky of the event, whose proceeds will go to benefit CircEsteem’s free afterschool tutoring program HomeWork & CircusWork.

And in a high-tech world where the human-to-human experience seems to be fading more with each sunset, Chermansky says the simple act of watching these kids’ eyes light up when they master a skill is something that will never, ever get old.

“It could be something as simple as balancing a feather,” she says. “What I love the most is the culture we try to create, which is centered on respect and support. These kids are happy for each other and that is a beautiful thing.”

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.