Matthew Wich may be the only 9-year-old in the world wh wants to travel to Bangladesh and Lesotho. After all, how many children his age would even know where those countries are located.
A slight, bespectacled child with an engaging grin, Matthew is a whiz at geography, and he is winning competitions to prove it.
First, the Perry Hall Elementary School fourth-grader beat all his classmates this February in an annual contest co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
A few weeks later he finished in the top 100 among 640 elementary and middle school students from across Maryland on a written test, earning the right to take part in the state finals of the National Geography Bee next month.
Since Matthew was competing against students in grades four through eight, finishing in the top 100 is an impressive accomplishment, said Ronald L. Robeson, the state coordinator of the contest.
"He must be a tremendously smart young man," Dr. Robeson said.
Matthew said he hadn't really felt any pressure, just a tinge of embarrassment when the school librarian, Nancy McKnight, announced over the intercom at Perry Hall that he had made it to the state finals.
"Mrs. McKnight said Matthew Jacob Wich had become one of the top finalists," he said with exasperation. "That started everyone calling me Jacob."
Matthew's parents, both high school teachers, are understandably proud but not too surprised.
"He's been interested in geography since he was very small," said his mother, Alicia.
There is a big wall map hanging in Matthew's bedroom, and he has always been fascinated by the atlas and finding the capitals of various nations, she said.
"He can spend hours looking at an atlas," Mrs. Wich said.
Matthew studies for the state championships for a half-hour daily. There is more to the contest than locating countries and their capitals, he said. It also involves such questions as the crops of particular countries and their population.
Matthew already has traveled numerous times out of the country with his family. He spent six weeks in Europe, where he visited France, Italy and Spain, and he has twice traveled to his mother's birthplace of Colombia, South America.
He counts playing Nintendo and riding his bicycle as two other things he enjoys. His third hobby, however, reinforces his love for geography.
"When there's nothing else to do, I collect stamps. I have a lot from all over the world," he said.
His chances of finishing first in the state competition April 5 at Prince George's Community College are "one out of a hundred," he says. The winner will represent Maryland in a national competition for a $25,000 college scholarship.
Whatever happens, Matthew still wants to see the Asian nation of Bangladesh "because it seems so isolated" and the African nation of Lesotho "because it's a country surrounded by a country."
These are four sample questions given in a study guide for the National Geography Bee, a contest for students in grades four through eight. The competition is sponsored by the National Geographic Society in response to a growing concern about the lack of geographic knowledge among young people in the United States.
1. What is the name of the centuries-old fortress in Moscow that houses the main government office of the Soviet Union?
2. Pagodas, structures commonly seen in Eastern Asia, are most often associated with what religion?
3. Which country lies closer to the U.S. mainland, Haiti or Cuba?
4. Which U.S. state has more glacier-formed lakes, Kentucky or Minnesota?
L Answers: 1. The Kremlin; 2. Buddhism; 3. Cuba; 4. Minnesota.