It's not even 2 p.m., and the police are already after DeVante and Damani. The two have been split up for what seems like hours, and now they've met back up under a basketball hoop at 37th Avenue and Franklin Street in the hopes that De'Aries and Santiago will show. When they do, the four catch a quick breath and begin to hastily inventory their ammo: guns -- check; bombs and knives -- check and check.
They take off again, running from today's lone cop, a girl they know is too slow for them. But they're not always so lucky. Some days they run and run -- through wood chips, across pavement, past adults and children -- and have no choice but to shoot and kill the cops in order to defend themselves; other days, it's one of them going down in a spray of bullets.
"Let's go, boys! Time to line up!"
The boys stop and look, listening to the tambourine shaking and the familiar voice calling them. They turn and head back to Maggie Gibbs's kindergarten class, another recess officially over.
The walls of classroom 260 at Wyatt-Edison Charter School erupt with color and creativity. Green paper leaves representing every book the class has read together canopy a seven-foot-tall hand-painted Story Tree. A four-foot-by-six-foot bulletin board displays dozens of pictures of elated kindergartners climbing in and out of a real fire engine and posing in front of penguins at the Denver Zoo. Counting charts, calendars and painted shapes hide nearly every remaining square inch of whiteness. The carpet tells the stories of a thousand spilled juice boxes and crumbled cookies.
Inside these walls, the 26 kids in the class learn to make good choices, and when they don't, they take "steps" on the board from "sunny" to "cloudy" to "rainy" to "stormy." The five- and six-year-olds come primarily from the bungalows in the surrounding Cole neighborhood, but the school also draws kids from all over Denver. In their blue-and-white uniforms, they sing songs that teach them about calling 911; they have an afternoon rest time called Let's Daydream; and when special snacks are served, they practice humility by chanting, "You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit." And though they are years away from the harsh realities of No Child Left Behind, they are constantly being prepped for quarterly standardized tests that will drill them on such things as the sound a "w" makes.
During recess, the kids traverse the monkey bars and shoot hoops while pretending to be Melo and Marcus Camby. But what some of the boys really love to do is make up their own games.
Last November, during Gibbs's first months at Wyatt (she and I moved out here last summer), she noticed the boys playing something new. They were running around, arms outstretched, fingers in gun formation, making BANG and POW noises, and falling over with the kind of dramatic flair that would draw a standing ovation from a high school drama teacher. When she asked DeVante what they were playing, the six-year-old simply replied, "Aw, Ms. Gibbs, we just playing Gang Babies." She immediately banned the game for being too violent. It wasn't long, however, before DeVante and the others dreamed up new and more complex games -- most notably, "50 Cent," "Cops" and "Dawn of the Dead." As she watched them, Gibbs noticed a pattern: Her students weren't just running around acting like little thugs; they were using their imaginations to take time-honored playground games such as Tag and Cops and Robbers and adapt them to their realities.
Gang Babies is essentially Tag, though it also bears a strong resemblance to Cops and Robbers. The "it" character is the police officer, but unlike in Cops and Robbers, the officer is a "bad guy." The rest of the players are "gang babies" who work together to stay alive. If a gang baby is shot and dies, the others bury him in a grave, and he is out for the rest of the game. The remaining players then retaliate against the cop for killing their friend. Unlike in Tag, the "it" position does not transfer simply by being shot (tagged), and once the cop is killed, the game ends. After Gibbs banned Gang Babies, DeVante altered his game and called it Cops, where the focus is on staying out of jail instead of staying alive. "I think of these games because I watch TV, and then I think about if I'm going to play that game tomorrow," DeVante says.
"50 Cent" also rose from the ashes of Gang Babies and has its foundation in the fact that DeVante idolizes the thug-life rapper and can sing much of his club-rap albums. Damani also gets some credit: He is by far the best five-year-old rapper in Colorado, and often falls into the characters of Bow Wow or Paul Wall, rapping entire songs (beatbox, melodies and all) without prompting. 50 Cent expands on the Tag/Cops and Robbers influence and reflects a bit of Follow the Leader. In the game, DeVante is 50 Cent (always) and Damani is Bow Wow, and the two battle-rap. When other kids take notice, they form a large following, and everyone who wants to be 50 Cent does exactly what DeVante does in order to become part of his crew. They have to walk a certain way, whisk down the slide a certain way, etc. Eventually the game evolves into a complex San Andreas: Vice City-style shoot-'em-up scenario in which 50 and his crew are the bad guys, the police are the good guys, and the object is to find and hide money, bust your friends out of jail, and shoot or be shot. Wood chips and trash represent money, weapons are plentiful, and gang babies (they refer to themselves as such in every game) assume the hands-behind-the-back position when arrested. "I play San Andreas, and I see him blowing up everything," DeVante says. "I listen to 50 Cent and Cash Money and everything, and that's why I think of it."
The Dawn of the Dead game also has its roots in popular culture. DeVante has seen a plethora of horror movies, including Scream, most of the Friday the 13th series and Halloween, but his favorite is the 2004 re-creation of Dawn of the Dead, a zombie apocalypse film that debuted in 1978. "They look like they're dead, but they're still alive," DeVante says incredulously. His playground version is essentially a reenactment of the film's plot with a little Tag thrown in to make it competitive. The "it" character is a zombie out to bite the other players and turn them into zombies. If you get bit, you have to wobble around with your arms out like a zombie and go after the others. The only way to win is to shoot the zombies in the head. "There's like four people alive and kazillions of dawn of the deads!" DeVante explains.
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Wyatt-Edison principal Dr. Kay Frunzi isn't surprised when she looks out the window and sees all of the antics. "Part of it is disturbing to me," she says. "And it's sad, I think, that they know about guns and violence and gangs. But this is their life, and this is what they live. This is a way for them to adapt to where they live."
And ultimately, she believes, these boys aren't doing anything different on the playground than boys have been doing for a century. Like their predecessors who idolized cowboys on TV Westerns and played "cowboys and Indians," these kids love what they know. And they all say they understand the games are "make pretend" and that guns hurt people in real life. "It is a game," Dr. Frunzi iterates. "This is what they are playing. It's not them acting out real life."
Six-year-old De'Aries agrees: "Sometimes we just run and have fun and smile and just play basketball, and sometimes we play soccer, and after soccer we play 50 Cent."
At least until the tambourine rattles.