An eager gaggle of schoolchildren sit cross-legged on the gravelly ground, holding their breath, half-praying, half-dreading that they will be called to compete. Around the perimeter stalks Justin Maloney, chanting a steady mantra: “Duck. Duck.” He pats each child’s head with methodical precision, never faltering. “Duck,” he says again and again, as the children squirm impatiently. Finally there is a barely perceptible break in Justin’s even rhythm, and as his hand comes down on a neatly braided head, his lips speak the fateful word: “Goose.”
The chase is on, but Justin’s pursuer doesn’t stand a chance, and she knows it. Still, she grins as Justin takes her spot in the circle: to be “goosed” by Justin Maloney is a distinct honor, one she will boast of at the dinner table tonight. Only six years old, Justin is already a playground legend, with a record that tops even the most aggressive third-grader’s. He is a duck-duck-goose prodigy.
A popular schoolyard legend claims that Justin Maloney is the only child in the history of P.S. 217 never to have done time in the Pickle Jar. “Most kids hit their D.D.G. peak at eight or nine,” says phys-ed teacher Otis Reynolds. “But Justin is special. He’s invented a whole new goosing technique. There’s no telling where he could go from here.”
Such a remarkable gift with all its attendant fame is a considerable burden for a kindergartner. Justin’s parents are struggling to meet the challenge of raising a son whose greatness is so widely admired. “We try to keep him grounded,” says mother Krista Maloney.
“Not, like, stay-in-your-room-all-weekend grounded,” her husband, Larry, clarifies. “Just down-to-earth grounded.”
Both are pleased to see their son sharing his gifts with his less-advanced schoolmates. “He always volunteers to start off any game of duck-duck-goose by being ‘it,'” Krista observes.
“He has to,” adds Larry, “or he would never get to play at all. That’s the funny thing about being a duck-duck-goose prodigy. You mostly just sit there.”
Because of his advanced skills, Justin runs the risk of aging out of the playground circuit before his seventh birthday, but Krista says she is not concerned that her son will grow up too fast. “A few weeks ago some eight-year-olds tried to turn him on to freeze tag, but Justin decided he wasn’t ready,” she says proudly. “He knows how to set limits.” Still, the Maloneys are actively seeking other outlets for their son’s energy. “We are planning to set up a few duck-duck-goose clinics in underprivileged neighborhoods, where Justin can tutor kids who haven’t had his opportunities,” Krista explains. “We want to use our power to really make a difference.”
Funding for outreach programs like the one Krista describes would come from Justin’s commercial sponsorship deals, which the Maloneys are currently negotiating. “We’re not at liberty to discuss his sneaker deal with Keds,” says Larry, “but we are looking to offer his services to other, water-fowl-themed corporate entities. I think footage of Justin playing duck-duck-goose could make a wonderful ad for AFLAC. Or Canadian tourism.”
What does Justin think of all this attention? “Duck-duck-goose is fun,” he shrugs, squinting up at me. “Your nose is full of boogers.” Then he is off and running, gathering his friends into another circle. “Boogerface!” he shouts, when he sees that I am still watching. The other children look on in adoration. They know they are in the presence of greatness.