In room 301 at LeMoyne School about 40 first- and second-graders sit cross-legged on the floor, their faces turned up toward Jose Reyes and Kevin Draftz, who stand over them in suits and ties.
"We represent the state's attorney's office," Reyes says. "That may not mean much to you children, but the state's attorney's office is in charge of the laws that grown-ups follow. Do you guys know what rules are?"
"Yes," the children say, a bit unsure of themselves.
"Can you tell me some of the rules at school?"
Several children raise their hands. No running in the halls. Don't tear up stuff. Don't break glass.
Reyes asks what sorts of rules they follow at home. Don't play with the oven, one child tells him. Don't cross your fingers behind your back when you're promising to be good, says another. "Rules are just like laws," Reyes explains. Then he asks, "When a grown-up breaks the law, where do they go?"
"Jail!" the kids shout enthusiastically.
"People that break the law go to..." Reyes cups one hand to his ear.
"That's right," he nods. Draftz sits down, reaches into a bag on the floor, and pulls out a floppy blue puppet that has a police cap on its head. Most of the children laugh when he swings the puppet around, holding it in front of his face and saying in a deep, gravelly voice: "My name is Larry Law." The children continue to laugh, and Reyes chuckles too. "You can see that Larry Law doesn't eat many doughnuts," he points out.
Reyes and Draftz work as community liaisons for the state's attorney's office, which has presented antidrug and antigang programs to students in the fifth through twelfth grades since 1981. Two years ago, in response to gangs recruiting younger and younger children, a program was tailored to kids ten and under. It was developed in consultation with teachers and social workers, who pointed out that little children like puppets. Since then State's Attorney Jack O'Malley's Puppet Patrol has been seen by children all over Cook County.
Draftz pulls a puppet with earrings from the bag on the floor and says in a high voice, "I'm C.L., which really means Conscious Lady, and I know everything. If you want to know anything, you ask me." Reyes sits down, pulls a puppet out of another bag, holds it in front of his face, and, speaking in a slightly higher timbre than before, says, "I'm Holmes, and I'm a wannabe." Reyes sticks Holmes on a chair and returns to his normal voice, asking the children if they know what a wannabe is. They say they do. "You don't wanna be a wannabe," Reyes says, "'cause wannabes don't know what they're doing." Out comes another puppet, who looks a bit like Bert, only he's dressed in baggy pants and has a chain around his neck. The children stop laughing. A small voice says, "Uh-oh."
Speaking from behind the puppet, Reyes says, "My name is J.T., and you don't ever want to be like me." J.T. is the gangbanger of the Puppet Patrol. "If you're with me you can get arrested or hurt," Reyes continues in the guise of J.T. And the initials J.T., he tells them, stand for Johnny Temptation.
After all the puppets are introduced the show begins. Holmes is continually hectored by Conscious Lady and Larry Law because he's been led astray by Johnny Temptation. He makes a hundred bucks standing on the corner holding packages for Johnny Temptation's club. He doesn't know what's in the packages, but Johnny Temptation has told him everything's cool. Eventually Holmes finds out everything isn't cool. There are drugs in the packages, and he's got to go before a judge. The show ends with Conscious Lady telling Holmes "I told you so," and that she isn't sure whether they can remain friends.
Reyes explains that the rest of the story is in the coloring books their teachers will hand out. Draftz stands up and says, "The play is about something called peer pressure. It's your friends to the left and right of you who get you into trouble, so you have to watch who your friends are." The children look at each other.
"So what did you learn today?" Reyes asks. Hands shoot up. They learned about drugs. They learned about gangs. Say no to drugs. Don't join a gang. Don't steal. "No, no," he stops them, "you didn't learn anything about stealing."
Before saying good-bye, Draftz says, "Hopefully this is as close as you'll ever come to the state's attorney's office. But if you break the law you can be tried. Even if you're ten."
But the children are much younger than ten. There are nine-year-olds and one ten-year-old in the second group, and when Larry Law is introduced nobody laughs. Nobody laughs at any of the other puppets either. "What, you guys don't talk to puppets?" Reyes asks. This group knows all about gangs. They answer Reyes's queries promptly and correctly. Just after the show begins, Draftz has to stop it to separate two boys. One goes to the front of the room and the other is sent off to the side.
Since this is a tougher, more knowledgeable crowd, Reyes and Draftz alter their questions accordingly. When Reyes tells them Holmes wound up at the juvenile detention center, it's clear that they've heard of the place. When he mentions gang violation ceremonies, no one asks what he means. While the earlier group cheered, these kids, though responsive, aren't as enthusiastic.
"OK, everybody stand up," Reyes commands at the end of the show. The children rise. Reyes and Draftz turn to face the front of the room and raise their right hands. "Now we'll take the Puppet Patrol pledge," Reyes says. "Upon taking this pledge, you will become a junior assistant state's attorney. As a junior assistant state's attorney, you must obey your parents and teachers. Tell a policeman or an adult you trust if you see anyone selling drugs, carrying guns, or breaking any law. Take pride in yourself, your school, and your neighborhood. Raise your right hand and repeat after me":
I will respect myself and others.
I will never take drugs.
I will never join a gang.
I will obey my parents and teachers.
I will never hurt another person.
I will never let my friends talk me into doing bad things.
I will study hard and stay in school.
I will tell a grown-up when I see bad things happen.
I will be a good person so I can have a happy life.
Reyes turns back to the kids. "Give yourselves a hand." The children applaud. A couple of them head for the stack of coloring books in the back, but Reyes tells them that the teachers will hand these out. One kid walks up to the puppets, lined up on four chairs in the front of the room, and reaches out to yank J.T.'s chain. But Draftz is right on him, saying not to touch the puppets. Several busted puppets taught the Puppet Patrol not to let the kids play with them.
On the cover of the Puppet Patrol Coloring Book there's a color photo of the four puppets smiling. The last page shows Holmes standing in front of a house, his parents and Larry Law at his side, smiling at him. Holmes is smiling also. The sun is shining, it's a beautiful spring day. He's taking the pledge. Though he's raised his left hand instead of his right, his fingers aren't crossed. The caption reads, "Holmes took the Puppet Patrol pledge and became a Junior Assistant State's Attorney. He never got into trouble again."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.