In Tammy Rhome's classroom, students pile their school-bought pan pizzas and Mountain Dew bottles on their notebooks as Ms. Rhome enters, exclaiming, "I'm retiring after the Games. I'm going to leave you all with a substitute."
She's speaking of the Pan-African Nurturing and Development Association Games, a Jeopardy-like annual event sponsored by area colleges and educational organizations that promises heavy competition between Colorado high-school teams.
"They'll ask you, like, 'So-and-so invented the gas mask,' and your team will have a time limit in a non-competitive round, or else two teams will have a buzzer to answer," says Cullen Casteel, a junior at East who is participating for his second year. "It's scary. You're up on this stage in front of everyone, but it's worth it--first prize is $125, and you get the trophy, this big golden bowl."
In her eleven years as a coach for the event, Rhome has captured the golden bowl five times, most recently in 1997 and 1998. "Hopefully we'll get to take it back home again," she says. "I want to three-peat."
"It's surprising, but East is the best team. Colorado Academy is good, too," says Casteel, but "it's a big deal at East. We haven't been able to go to lunch for a month now."
The chattering in the room quiets down as real practicing begins. Rhome calls one of the geography teams to the blank paper map of Africa at the front of the room. Two boys begin drawing the capes off the coast of Mozambique and Madagascar as the other eighteen students look on critically.
"Ms. Rhome says that if she catches us cheating before [the judges] do, well...you don't wanna cross Ms. Rhome," Casteel says confidentially.
Later the students practice questions in a simulated competitive round. Rhome reads aloud from a practice booklet sent by the P.A.N.D.A. organization, but usually she can't finish the question before hands are slamming on desks.
"The first newspaper to be published--"
Senior Carnita Groves's hand slaps her desk. "Freedom Press."
"Who was the virtuous black Greek goddess of Chastity?"
Groves fidgets in her desk. "Um...it begins with an 'A,' just give me two seconds...Athena?"
"Artemis," comes the correction from the other side of the room.
"See, I knew it was an 'A' one."
Most team members say their motivations for competing in the games are pride-driven. "It's a big deal for the black community at East," says Casteel. "You want to know more about your heritage than another heritage would."
Groves agrees. "It's fun--you learn more about the African culture than you would normally learn in class. You get to show off your knowledge and show your friends what you're studying.
"But it's not all a black thing. It's mixed."
"Team bonding is the biggest part," says Rhome. "I've seen a team, two years ago, whose members had been together since freshman year. By the time they were seniors, I would swear they knew what each other was thinking. I've never seen a team so in sync. One member would slam the buzzer and then look at a teammate as if to say, 'You should know that one. It's yours.' And they'd know it. It was pretty cool."
The P.A.N.D.A. Games--Lucky Thirteen; preliminaries on Sunday, February 21, noon to 6 p.m., finals on Sunday, February 28, 2 to 5 p.m., St. Cajetan's Center on the Auraria campus, 1190 Ninth Street, free.