Watertown’s Cunniff Elementary School students received a lesson in voting this week, but not in the traditional sense.
The school’s third, fourth and fifth graders filed into the school’s gymnasium, preparing to watch a mock debate Wednesday afternoon, before the vice-presidential debate airs tonight.
But instead of encountering two men in suits with slicked-back hair, both candidates in the debate arrived in red noses and comically oversized shoes, running after each other in circles as the moderator tripped over his microphone stand and jabbed himself in the face.
Part of a four-city national tour, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus brought “The Greatest Election on Earth!” to participating schools to teach young students the importance of voting and learning about political candidates.
The mock debate pitted two circus clowns against each other – Todd Voting, a traditionally-dressed clown who stood for wigs, costumes, and real cream pies to the face; and Mike Matters, a young, fresh face with new ideas, favoring minimalist clown clothing and shaving cream pies for throwing. The two lobbied the students to vote for them to be the next "Boss Clown" of the circus.
Students in the four schools that host the clown debate vote that day for their favorite candidate on paper ballots, and students across the nation can vote online until Oct. 23, when the scores will be tallied. The new “Boss Clown” will be announced Oct. 24 by 4 p.m.
In Watertown, the candidates each weighed in on the best pies to throw, the way for clowns should dress, and how each would handle responsibilities as the circus’s primary prankster.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to be the Boss Clown of The Greatest Show on Earth,” Matters told the crowd. “And I believe that shaving cream pies are the wave of the future.”
His opponent, Voting, said he thought real cream pies were better, because it means the clowns could "eat a little on the side.”
In between arguing, the two candidates gave students a taste of the circus life, knocking each other with an oversized powder puff and juggling bowling pins over a Cunniff School teacher.
During the debate, the two agreed that every clown should sport the classic round red nose – much to the chagrin of the moderator, circus performer Chett Chetterly.
“This is a debate!” Chetterly cried. “You’re supposed to argue!”
Alana Feld and Nicole Feld, the sisters who produce the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus show, said they specifically wanted the clown candidates to outline differing points of views to show students the how a debate, and the voting process, works.
“It’s about finding out what you believe in,” Alana said.
The sisters decided to produce the mock debate this year because of the upcoming presidential election, emphasizing to kids the value of voting.
“It’s important to educate kids about voting so that when they’re old enough to vote, they’ll take it seriously,” Nicole said. “We also wanted to emphasize that what they have to say is important to our country. It’s a fun and entertaining way to get our message across.”
In addition to the circus which opened Wednesday at the TD Garden in Boston and is running until Sunday, the sisters said they looked forward to coming to Massachusetts because of the state's relevance in this year’s presidential and congressional elections.
“There’s so much discussion about Massachusetts in the news because it’s a state that has so many elections,” Nicole said, adding that many local students said they are tuning in this year since presidential candidate Mitt Romney hails from the state.
Indeed, fourth grade students at Cunniff Elementary School seemed very well-informed about this year’s election. Mario Greco, 9, said he watches the senatorial and presidential debates with his parents, noting that he and his brother tag along when his father to the voting booth.
Greco said he learned more about the experience of casting a ballot Wednesday during the clown debate.
“I like that there are ways to vote for different people on different topics,” Greco said. “I felt very happy that each [Clown Boss candidate] had something they stood for. I felt very interested in voting, and I want to do it when I get older.”
Christina Varsamis, 9, said she enjoyed the slapstick entertainment the two clowns performed, but said she also learned that candidates have responsibility in an election.
“I felt happy to vote because I never got to vote before,” she said.
Cunniff Elementary’s principal, Mena Ciarlone, said she appreciated the opportunity to show the kids the debate and election process.
Ciarlone said she thought the show was well done, with enough differences between the clowns – who were also respectful towards each other – to portray a real debate.
“It was funny but there was substance,” she said. “The message seemed to reiterate.”
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org