In a small town, far from the big city, lived a little boy and his mother. Whenever the little boy would scratch his knee while playing, his mother was there smiling, ready to wash it off and comfort him. When the wind outside his window would frighten him at night, his mother was there smiling, ready to sing him lullabies so he could fall asleep again. It seemed like his mother’s smile could always make him feel better.

“I love you,” the little boy said to his mother.

“I love you too,” she told him. “You make me very happy, and that is the greatest gift that a person can give.”

One day, the little boy’s mother told him that she had a special surprise for him. He knew his birthday was coming up, but he could not imagine what his surprise could be. “You will just have to wait and see,” she said, “but it will make you very happy.” Finally, the day of his birthday arrived, and his mother told him that they were going to the circus to celebrate. She told him all about the animals, performers, and clowns.

The circus was more than the little boy could have ever have imagined. Three red flags blew from the poles of a tall striped tent. Smells of strange and delicious foods wafted through the air. The people wore funny clothes, and some of them looked like they were from far away places. The little boy’s mother held her son’s hand as they walked together toward the big striped tent.

Once inside, they took their seats and the show began. A juggler walked out into the spotlight and began to juggle two brightly colored balls. The little boy laughed and clapped as the two balls turned into three, then four, then five. The little boy had never seen anything like it! Soon, the juggler was spinning other things through the air too: pins, bottles, knives, and even torches.

“You seem so happy,” the little boy’s mother said. “Are you enjoying the circus?”

“Yes, mother,” the little boy replied. “When I grow up, I want to be a juggler!”

His mother smiled and did not say anything more. After many thrills and laughs, the show was finally over, and the little boy and his mother walked home. As she was tucking him into bed, the little boy’s mother asked him, “Why do you want to be a juggler, my son? Is it for the money or the exciting life as a performer?”

“No, mother,” replied the little boy. “It is because jugglers make people happy, and you said that is the greatest gift that a person can give.”

“Is that what you really want?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, mother!” the little boy exclaimed, “More than anything in the world!”

His mother smiled, and kissed him goodnight. The little boy fell asleep quickly and dreamed about exotic animals and delicious smells. When he awoke, the little boy heard his mother talking with someone in the front room. Because they rarely had visitors, he dressed quickly to see who had come to call. When the little boy saw who had come to visit, he could not believe his eyes. Sitting there in his own small home was the very same ringmaster that he and his mother had watched at the circus the night before. His mother had been touched by the boy’s desire to make people happy by being a juggler, she explained, and that day was the last day that the circus would be in town. She had gone back to the circus to invite the ringmaster to their home so she could ask him to allow her young son to join the circus.

“Well,” the ringmaster said through his curly mustache, “the circus wouldn’t last very long if we didn’t train any new performers. But a circus isn’t all fun and games. You need to work hard and practice, too. Tell me, boy, why do you want to be a juggler?”

His mother squeezed his hand and urged him to tell the ringmaster what he had told her the previous night. The little boy looked at the ringmaster uncertainly and said, “I want to be a juggler so I can make people happy.”

The old ringmaster smiled and said, “I think that’s something we all want, my boy.” Looking at his mother, he added, “We’d be happy to take him along and teach him to juggle.”

So the little boy’s mother packed her son’s things, hugged him once more and, holding back her tears, kissed him goodbye. The little boy promised he would send letters and, smiling, departed with the ringmaster.

It was not easy, learning how to juggle. The little boy practiced every day, when he was not busy doing other chores to help around the circus. There were always horses that needed to be brushed, sawdust that needed to be swept, and elephants that needed to be fed. With how busy he was between practicing juggling and helping out around the circus, the little boy could scarcely believe how fast the months, and then the years went by. Before he knew it, he had been a part of the circus show for three years, and the ringmaster finally agreed that he was ready to juggle in front of an audience.

When it was finally his chance to perform in the circus show, the boy was so happy he could barely believe it. People oohed as he juggled brightly colored balls into the air. They aahed as he sent pins and torches twirling upward and caught them right before they hit the ground. When his performance was finished, he bowed to applause and walked offstage where he could watch the rest of the show.

A troupe of clowns came cartwheeling and somersaulting into the center ring. The boy watched as they joked and made the audience roar with laughter. Look at how happy all of the people look, thought the boy. Suddenly, he realized that he could only make people happy if he could make them laugh. The best way to make people laugh, it seemed, was by being a clown.

Of course, the ringmaster was skeptical when the boy said he wanted to learn to be a clown, but he had taken a liking to the boy and granted his wish. It was good that he knew how to juggle, the boy quickly learned, because he had to learn many other skills to be a good clown, as well. Some clowns did magic tricks, some clowns tumbled and did acrobatics, and some clowns told jokes. No matter how hard the training was, though, the boy was excited to know that he would be making people truly happy.

Years went by as the circus toured from town to town, city to city. The boy lost count of how many new places he saw as the passing time turned him into a young man whose joking, tumbling, and clowning brought laughter to the faces of hundreds. As the young man had become more confident, he had also begun helping the old ringmaster manage the circus. At first it was little things, like buying food for animals or parts for equipment. As time went on, though, the ringmaster began to rely on him for bigger things, like hiring new performers for the circus or administering the pay of the hired help.

One night, after a particularly successful performance, the old ringmaster took the young man aside and said, “Listen, my friend, you have been with this circus a long time, since you were just a young boy. I am not going to be around forever, and I would like to see that the circus will be taken care of. If it’s all right with you, I would like to start teaching you how to be a ringmaster yourself so you can take over when I’m gone.”

The young man could not believe what he was hearing.

“Now, obviously,” the ringmaster went on, “this would be a serious obligation, and I would only want you to do it if you could promise me that you would serve this circus as its ringmaster for the rest of your life.”

What an incredible opportunity, the young man thought. Surely, as ringmaster, he could see to it that the circus brought only the most amazing or funny acts to cities and towns all across the lands. His work would bring delight to everyone who came and saw the jugglers, acrobats, clowns, and animals. It was no small obligation that was being asked of him, however, and it had been a very long time since the young man had seen his mother.

Perhaps it was this doubt that made the ringmaster say, “How about this: tomorrow, you can play the part of ringmaster for our closing night. I’ll show you everything you need to do, and you can see if that is truly what you want.”

The ringmaster spent all of the next day running the young man through every step of what he needed to do in the show. He showed the young man how to welcome the audience and excite them, how to keep the show running on time, and how to make sure that all of the performers were in their correct places. It was a lot to learn, but the young man was a quick learner and soon felt nervous but excited for his first night as a ringmaster. Finally, his big moment came, and he stood in the spotlight, facing his audience.

The young man looked out over the crowd and saw bench after bench full of people who had come to laugh and applaud. As his eyes swept over the multitude, his heart skipped a beat as he saw a mother sitting beside her excited little boy. She smiled at her son as he chattered about animals and acrobats, just as his own mother had done so many years before. The young man’s world snapped back into focus as he saw the old ringmaster out of the corner of his eye, gesturing frantically for him to begin.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the young man yelled, and welcomed the crowd to the circus. Soon enough, there were jugglers juggling and acrobats tumbling. Laughter rang through the great striped tent as the clowns humored the audience with their antics. Parents and children alike were delighted as the animal trainers put lions and elephants through their routines. At long last, the grand finale was over. To great applause, the young man thanked his audience and bid them goodnight.

The old ringmaster came and shook his hand. “You did a fine job, my boy! A fine job, indeed. Have you given any thought about the offer I made you?”

The young man was about to reply, but something caught his eye as he looked past the old man in front of him. Gesturing excitedly as he talked about his favorite acts in the show, the little boy was leaving the stands with his mother. She held his hand tightly and smiled at him as the two walked out of the tent. Maybe it’s his birthday, the young man thought. Maybe she brought him as a special surprise. But even after the thrills and laughs at the circus, tomorrow the little boy would wake up and he and his mother would be together for another day. It was in that moment that the young man realized that he knew what he needed to tell the old ringmaster.

Seeing the far off look in his young friend’s eyes, the old man thought he knew the answer as well. He was understanding when the young man thanked him for his offer but told him that the time had come for him to return home.

“Well,” the old ringmaster said, “I am very glad that you were a part of this circus, and you should be too. You have brought smiles to the faces of so many people.”

“With your help, I have,” the young man agreed, “but now there is just one person whose smile I would like to see.”

The young man packed his things and was on the first train the next morning. He nervously passed the time remembering the cherished sights of his childhood. When the train pulled into the station, he walked briskly up the familiar path that led to the small home where his mother had comforted him and washed off the knees he had scratched while playing. When he opened the door and dropped his suitcase inside, an old woman greeted him from her chair by the window. Age may have whitened her long hair. The years may have added wrinkles to her face. When she smiled to see her son after so many years, though, it was the same smile he saw when she made him breakfast every morning and tucked him in at night. It was a smile of true happiness.

He went to her and knelt by her chair. She took his hand and said, “My son, I didn’t know if I would see you again. I have heard that you were a great circus performer, known far and wide. Did you do it? Did you make the people happy?”

The young man smiled and said, “I made them laugh, mother, which is the best I could do. True happiness is a gift that can only come from the people we love.”

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