Ah, the music, the lights, the clowns, the sawdust, the edge of the seat anticipation that something wonderful is about to happen, the future college professor flying through the air doing fancy flips and then dangling upside down from a trapeze.
So who among the dreamers and starry-eyed adventurers hasn’t fantasized at one time or another about chucking it all and running away to join the circus. Dr. Edna Meisel, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Professional Development, didn’t exactly run away to join a circus, but in a way you could almost say the circus found her. When the Huntington native headed off to Florida State University to study the serious subject of chemistry, little did she dream that shortly she would be thrust into a whole new world of excitement, thrills, physical and mental challenges– and best of all it would be the most fun she’d ever had in her life. It turns out that Florida State has a storied history of a student-run, non-animal circus dating back to 1947, a club activity similar to sororities and fraternities, only with people soaring through the air and clowns blundering through slapstick routines. From the beginning she and the circus fit together like a bee and honey. She was an exceptionally talented performer from the start with her natural gifts—agility, balance, superb coordination, concentration, curiosity and fearlessness, to name a few. Not all of the eager amateurs would make the cut, but Meisel had a definite advantage. Born the seventh of eight children, she was a scrappy competitor in a household that consisted of six boisterous brothers and an older sister and she learned early to combine her athleticism with a fierce competitive spirit.
Meisel concentrated on four specialties—the teeter board, the double trapeze, a five-person bicycle team, and roller skating. By far the most complex to learn was the teeter board, in which a performer stands on one end of a board and is flipped through the air to land on a teammate’s shoulders. The students worked with safety lines until they were absolutely proficient but it still took incredible skill and timing just to learn. It’s a source of pride to her that she was, in fact, part of the FSU team that was the first to set an amazing record, an impossible feat to most peoples’ thinking—flipping five people high. In a tribute to her nature, she easily navigated the intricacies of the teeterboard and the other circus “tricks” with the same proficiency she navigated the dense thicket of the statistical mathematical equations she now teaches.
‘”Oh, that was really fun!” she says in a whopper of an understatement. “The audience really got into it, they were clapping and cheering us on and we were interacting with them. That’s why circuses are so great; they take your mind off your problems.”
Not content to rest her well-earned laurels on the teeter board, there were more feats to come. She was part of a double trapeze act which consisted of a boy and a girl working on a stationary trapeze, doing flips in the air, hanging upside down and performing other scary-to -watch gymnastic routines. Once again, performers practiced with lines until they were proficient. Safety was always paramount, Meisel says, “We were coached and everything we did was very safety oriented. We were taught not only how to practice but how to ‘miss a trick.’ It’s as important to know how to miss a trick, which is to fall into a net, as it is to do the trick in the first place. In fact we were taught so well I was never apprehensive or scared to do a show.”
And as dazzling as her aerial work was, Meisel also excelled on the ground as well. She was part of a closely synchronized five-person bike team and also took up roller skating, quickly mastering the intricate and crowd-pleasing routines as she and her partner twirled in intricate patterns around the rink.
Although audiences enthusiastically cheered on the young troupers, one person who decidedly wasn’t thrilled was Meisel’s mother, Lourice Fattaleh, who wasn’t happy with her daughter’s new avocation, to say the least. “She was, of course, concerned about the safety. But when she came to visit we showed her that since I was athletic, it was safe if you were careful. That eased her mind a lot but still she was very happy when I graduated and left it all behind!”
Since the circus was a strictly a student activity, performers doubled up and did all the behind-the-scenes work as well—they made costumes, set up the tent, packed up, transported equipment, and then started all over again. Everyone pitched in and did their part. And just like their bigger counterparts, they were a traveling troupe. “We did shows in Florida, Georgia and Alabama,” Meisel remembers. “We traveled up until the spring semester. We then put up the tent on the campus circus lot and presented performances for two weekends on campus. An FSU circus tradition! Then in the summer, 25 or so of the 100 in our group would be selected to work at Callaway Gardens in Georgia as counselors. We worked during the day as counselors and then in the evenings we put on shows. That was a fantastic job that allowed me to be with my friends. College was such a great experience for me. I’m sometimes amazed I managed to get a degree in the midst of all that fun. I cried when I had to leave.”
With chemistry degree in hand, Meisel landed a job in an analytical chemistry lab, where her natural teaching skills didn’t go unnoticed. When a new hire she was working with one day asked, “Why aren’t you a teacher?” that put a bug in her ear. “I liked talking about the work, showing others how to do it; I realized I did enjoy the teaching aspect of my work. So I decided to go back to college and obtain my teaching certificate in chemistry and mathematics.”
Years later she added a master’s degree in secondary education. Then it was on to the Marshall University Community and Technical College, where she taught developmental science and math classes for six years. She then obtained a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, earning the latter through the MU/WVU cooperative Ed.D. program that existed at the time. During her doctoral program, she worked at the MU graduate college in South Charleston beginning in 2002 as a grad assistant before joining the faculty full time in 2005, where today she teaches math, statistics, curriculum and instruction, and educational foundation courses.
Getting her doctorate opened up a whole new world, she says. “I work with grants that help teachers become better math teachers. I love working closely with them; I particularly like working with … groups that go through the classes together. While I certainly appreciate the benefits of teaching and learning online, I like to go out into the schools and meet with the teachers. I enjoy that the most. And now I’m working with science grants as well. Anything that can make science and math more enjoyable for teachers to teach and for students to learn is a real joy for me. I particularly like teaching statistics, because it’s math with a purpose, and I also like to do data analysis because it’s working with real-world data.”
Meisel is so multi-faceted it’s hard to know where to begin, but her family would be a good start. With grandparents who came from Lebanon and Syria on both sides, the close-knit Fattaleh family still has strong Middle Eastern traditions and celebrates them with style. “We all went to St. Joseph’s, and a few of us still live in Huntington. We get together for holidays and any other time that we can. My best friend, for example, is my older sister,” she says. And no surprise, the family get-togethers are famous for their sumptuous Lebanese foods. There are grape leaf rolls, kibbee, tabbouleh salad, hummus, cabbage rolls, and their own special meat rolls.
“We have to have our Lebanese food,” Meisel says emphatically, “All of us are good cooks.” And the grape leaves they use are no ordinary ones but have their own storied family history. The leaves come from a vine that Meisel’s grandfather carried to this country from Lebanon and it’s been cut and divided and planted in the yards of his children and grandchildren ever since. It’s a cherished family tradition that the original vine still lives through the generations of cuttings that have been passed down with love. “We want to keep it growing because we think of him every time we cook with those leaves.” And she’s delighted that some of the younger family members are beginning to ask for cuttings.
And as fiercely competitive as the rambunctious siblings were on athletic fields, parents Lourice and James made sure each youngster also got a sound music education. Growing up, music was an integral part of the Fattaleh household. “Mom was a singer and we all had piano lessons. We grew up with music and we were expected to choose an instrument and learn to play it. Music brought our family together even more.” And those lessons really paid off because today the family has its own band, Mountain Color, in which Meisel plays the banjo alongside her husband, Tim, who plays the mandolin; brothers Larry on bass, David on guitar and dulcimer, John on the autoharp and sister Frances on the violin. The band plays “old time music,” as Meisel characterizes it, and they’re a popular attraction at fairs and festivals, church functions and other places where groups congregate and appreciate spirited mountain music. They’ve played at a family wedding rehearsal dinner and they’ve been invited to perform at numerous other gatherings. They’re particularly fond of performing at the Vandalia Festival held annually on the grounds of the state Capitol in Charleston each summer, and the Appalachian String Festival which takes place near Babcock State Forest. “That festival is very big; people come from miles around. We play the traditional old-time music, which is very popular. We do it for fun, but it’s part of our heritage.”
It’s no surprise that with her mathematical mind she would be a dedicated quilter. She took it up a few years ago at her sister’s behest and learned to quilt Frances’ way, laboriously by hand. “I love geometry so it came naturally to me, but I didn’t like doing it by hand,” she candidly admits. “Then I got introduced to machine quilting and that opened the door for me.” And the doors really opened wide because so far she’s polished off a queen-size quilt and a throw, and there are always assorted works in progress. In fact, quilting is such a passion she makes the annual “quilt hop” with friends. Every June her group gets together for the two-day event, visiting designated quilt shops in Huntington, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Fairmont, Bridgeport, and Elkins—12 shops in all. It’s like collecting pieces of a quilt puzzle as each shop gives the quilter a pattern square and fabric and the artists express their creativity by choosing materials to create their own works of art. “It’s amazing how much interest there is in quilting,” she says. “Hundreds of people go on these hops.”
And with all the teaching, quilting, band gigs and family get-togethers, Meisel still makes time for vigorous workouts on the tennis court and the golf course with her husband, who was her high school sweetheart and her tennis mentor. She can rack up a mean game of basketball as well. She’s modest, as usual, about her accomplishments but does say about her husband, “You have to be good to play with him!”
And although time may have dimmed the chords of the calliope and the spotlights and the glitter of her circus past, those treasured memories are still there and she, in fact, has kept in contact with several of her fellow performers. She’s even made nostalgic trips back to see the modern FSU troupes perform where there have been some subtle changes, probably related to safety, she guesses. The high wire is a little lower now and the sawdust is gone—it’s flammable. It was flammable in her day as well, but because of its “circusy” ambiance it was given a pass. But the fun, the excitement, the sheer exuberance of the performers, that hasn’t changed; it’s all still there, a never-never land where even an eager young teenager from the hills of West Virginia could take off on flights of fancy and soar to heights she once could only dream about.
Photos: Dr. Edna Meisel (right in first photo and top in second photo) in her days as a circus performer at Florida State University.