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Alumni Stories: Jens Larson '81

Juggling Careers: From The Circus To The Classroom

by Rebekah Rombom '08

If anyone proves that a career can be fluid and unpredictable, that person is Jens Larson ’81.  Larson, a mathematics major modified with geography while at the College, wanted to become a city planner during his Dartmouth days.  But during his senior year, the gymnast was invited to join the circus.

An extremely unconventional move, Larson said he decided to seize the opportunity to become a performer.

“I worked for this guy that ran the world’s smallest circus,” Larson says. “It took me to 48 states in about eight months, and we performed everywhere from Yale University campus to a soup kitchen in Los Angeles…it was a fascinating introduction to circus, and I started to think about it as something that was more than just a lark.”

Larson spent two years with that small traveling troupe, then another 17 moving from group to group and selling his act as an independent contractor.

During the time that Larson was a performer, he was based in Phoenix but “we were just gone for months at a time,” he says of himself and his wife Maggie.  But injuries forced Larson to seek a more stable lifestyle.

“I managed to live through 19 years, I guess I wasn’t willing to push my luck any further,” Larson says of his relatively long circus career.

After suffering a lower back injury that made it impossible to do his aerial act, a knee injury and shoulder problems, Larson began to look into teaching positions in Phoenix.

“The confidence I needed to enjoy what I was doing was starting to slip,” he says, “it was starting to get really stressful every day to just get up and do it, and I didn’t feel like watering down the acts.”

Larson approached the Phoenix public school system about a job substitute teaching because he had enjoyed the volunteer tutoring he’d done during off-seasons.  To his surprise, Larson was placed in a classroom the next week because the district had a dire shortage of math teachers.  He worked towards his teaching certification for a year and a half while simultaneously teaching classes every day.

“It was trial by fire, really,” he says.  “It’s extremely challenging.”

In his current job teaching mostly ninth and tenth grade mathematics, Larson sometimes tries to incorporate aspects of his circus days.        

“I will perform in class whenever I have what I consider a good rationale for doing so,” Larson says, but he has learned that teaching and circus variety acts require very dissimilar types of performing.

“It couldn’t be more different to do the same seven-minute act over and over again for different people, than what I’m doing now, which is to see the same kids over and over again for an hour every day.  You simply can’t think of teaching as performing, but you try to make your presentation as interesting as you can.”

Larson enjoys the opportunity to directly influence his students and the freedom to control how he runs his own classroom.  But in the urban Phoenix district, it is often difficult to make algebra seem relevant to students with more pressing problems, he says.

“Teaching is a tremendous challenge, and it won’t be getting any easier as the years go on,” Larson says.  “I suspect that’s because my standards are going up, my sense of what I need to do to help the kids is going up, and I have to battle with my expectations on a daily basis.”

Still, Larson finds the work rewarding, if stressful while school is in session, and says he sees his future as an educator.

“Don’t try to write the script ahead of time,” he says by way of advice for Dartmouth students, “and be open to the idea that things will sort of fall into place unexpectedly.  This opportunity to join the circus came my way and I seized it, and I never would have guessed that I would have ended up teaching.  It’s all been great, and if I had tried to write the script ahead of time I wouldn’t have gotten there.”


Last Updated: 6/21/12