RIDGELY -- Teacher Lorraine Slama wasn't trying to be innovative when she stood in front of her students and tossed three scarves in the air. She had just learned to juggle and wanted to show off her new skill.
"I was only trying to kill time at the end of a class," Mrs. Slama said. "The reaction from the kids was, 'Let me try. Let me try.' "
They've been trying ever since, and now, three years after it began as a classroom antic, juggling is more than mere entertainment at the Benedictine School for Exceptional Children. It has become an important tool for working with children who have emotional and learning disabilities.
Juggling everything from lightweight scarves to cumbersome rubber chickens has become a common sight on this picturesque campus in rural Caroline County.
An older student in the school's vocational orientation program can handle five objects at a time and is about to learn to juggle three flaming torches. Another student routinely juggles fruits and vegetables when he goes into a nearby food market.
The school has its own juggling club, which visits senior centers and nursing homes. One group of jugglers traveled to Salisbury University, where it taught basic moves to students.
Juggling is so popular among the 125 special education students who board and study here that teachers have set guidelines about who can participate in the twice-weekly juggling classes.
Faced daily with disruptive and occasionally physically dangerous behavior from many of the students, teachers discovered that conduct often could be modified by granting or withdrawing juggling privileges.
"It's an incentive to follow the rules," said Lisa Fitzgerald-Grande, who teaches youngsters ages 8 to 13. "There are times when it's managed to turn some people around, get them back on track."
Although she has yet to master juggling the scarves and balls, 12-year-old Adriana Gnall of Trappe said that she feels better when she's in the class.
"I usually have a good day in juggling," she said during a recent break from trying to balance a peacock feather on her chin. "I make good progress with my behavior, and I treat other people nice."
School administrators also noticed that a student's progress from balancing the peacock feather to successfully juggling three heavier objects offered another benefit.
"For a lot of these young people, it's probably been the best confidence builder they experienced in a long time," said Sister Jeannette Murray, the school director. "What's better for confidence than success?"
James Lau, an 18-year-old student from Harford County, said that he nearly gave up trying to juggle three bean cushions the first time he tried a year ago.
"I told myself I wouldn't be able to do it," he said.
At his teachers' urgings, James persevered. He has incorporated a self-taught trick of bouncing one of the three cushions off his ankle, never missing a beat with the other two.
"It makes you feel good," he said.
David Slama, Mrs. Slama's husband and a crisis counselor at the school, said that some students' ability to juggle transcends their handicaps.
"These kids go home and can do something their parents can't do," he said. "A lot of them have younger brothers and sisters who are getting driver's licenses -- things they'll never get -- but they can juggle when no one else in their family can."
Demand for challenges
Mrs. Slama said that the students' demand for more juggling challenges is so great that she has had to practice hard to increase her skill.
And because juggling equipment -- scarves, balls and hoops -- is expensive, she searches thrift shops for affordable material to keep her jugglers supplied. Many of the cushions the students use are made of Mrs. Slama's discarded socks filled with dried beans.
While some teachers and parents are surprised that juggling can be good for disabled individuals, David Finnigan says that he is convinced that it improves rhythmic skills and hand-eye coordination, two features that can be carried over to other learning activities.
"No one has valued juggling high enough to study it," said Mr. Finnigan, the founder of Jugglebug, a firm in Edmonds, Wash., that markets juggling equipment and books. "It's almost as though we've been a voice crying in the wilderness saying this has happened."
Mr. Finnigan, who is scheduled to preach the gospel of juggling at a recreation conference in Towson later this month, said that he encourages teachers to give students "juggling breaks" during classroom studies.
A good model
"Teachers who do this tell me they find that juggling provides a good model for other learning experiences," he said, adding that juggling can break up boredom and sharpen concentration.
Benedictine's Sister Jeannette said that juggling has found a permanent place in the school's curriculum.
"Disabled people have a hard time making quick judgments," she said. "Juggling asks this of them. When they master juggling, they're willing to master something else at a higher level."