Behind the red spongy noses and the elastic balloon animals, there's a method to Bryan Black's silliness -- a serious belief in the value of letting kids clown around.
The 32-year-old physical education teacher at Old Mill South Middle School in Millersville scanned the list of after-school clubs and found the standard options year after year: drama . . . orchestra . . . soccer . . . yearbook.
Black was concerned about the lack of opportunities for students whose interests don't fit into predictable activities, recognizing that not every kid can be the team captain or first-chair violin in the orchestra.
So Black proposed an idea that's novel for a public school, yet rooted in the century-old traditions of the Ringling brothers: an extracurricular program on how to be a clown.
"Just Clowning Around" offers students a chance to put on clown makeup and learn magic tricks. Some take turns on a unicycle. Others juggle neon pink, yellow and green beanbags.
"This gives them a chance to experience something completely different," said Black, who became interested in clowning as a child. This month, he will begin moonlighting at parties and community events as "B.B. the Clown."
School leaders encouraged Black, a teacher at the Anne Arundel County school for six years, to follow through with his unconventional concept.
"It gives students who may not be gifted in the academic areas or in the sports areas another place to shine," Principal Catherine Izzo said.
Forty-seven students signed up for the weekly 50-minute sessions in the gym after school. That is nearly six times as many students as in the school's math club (eight) and about twice the number of indoor soccer participants.
Before joining the clown club, 13-year-old Eileen Barber, an eighth-grader, went home right after school and often had nothing to do.
On a recent afternoon, however, she was quite busy. She used a small plastic paint brush to draw orange-and-black tiger stripes on the face of her friend Brandon Sukeforth. Then, with care, she attempted to copy the bushy eyebrows from a drawing Black had taped to the wall.
"Hey -- you, like, just hit my eye," Brandon scolded.
Eileen giggled and apologized.
"This is fun," she said.
Next came the balloon shaping lessons. Black took a pink balloon and used a special pump to turn it into a 3-foot-long hot dog. He tied a knot at one end, twisted the middle and, many squeaks later, held up a six-petal flower.
The students tried to follow his example.
Billy Armiger, 13, grabbed a balloon, pumped air into it and knotted an end. He twisted it, turned it, then doubled over trying to maneuver all the correct bumps into place.
The balloon popped.
"I hate you," Billy screamed, stomping on the deflated balloon in frustration.
Black quickly tried to lighten the mood, understanding that even clowning can become serious business.
"Not everything is going to be perfect. Don't worry about it," he urged. "You've just got to keep trying and trying."
Billy obliged, scooping a new balloon from the box.
Black believes that after a year in the club, some students will be able to use their newfound skills in the community, at nursing homes and other places. To better prepare them, he plans to bring in guest speakers -- full-time clowns and magicians.
Some students can earn extra cash with part-time clown jobs, he said, and they can gain self-confidence while helping to brighten the days of people who might need it. "You can do this for kids or adults. It puts a smile on anybody," Black said.
Several students have been hired by their parents to perform at parties and office functions. And Izzo has booked the clown club to provide entertainment at this year's Showcase Night, a spring open house for prospective sixth-graders and their parents.
Izzo has no idea what the student clowns will offer the 300 to 500 guests that night.
But she's not going to set any boundaries.
"Whatever they want," she said.