WASHINGTON - There are different ways of coping with the stress of an impending competition where your state pride, your own reputation as a geography whiz and a $25,000 prize are riding on your shoulders.
In the lobby at National Geographic Society headquarters just before the National Geographic Bee begins, the contestant from Florida forms a football-style huddle with his family. In a secluded corner, one of his rivals gets his shoulders massaged. Puerto Rico's representative chants a nonsensical song into the ear of the kid from New Jersey, who grins warily and then escapes behind a parent.
Fifty-five middle-school students gathered here this week, each already the geography bee champion of his or her state or territory, having emerged from 5 million entrants.
Only one, of course, can win it all. Yesterday, after a two-day competition presided over by Alex Trebek of television's Jeopardy, it all came down to this deciding question, answered correctly by 14-year-old Andrew Wojtanik of Kansas:
"Peshawar, a city in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, has had strategic importance for centuries because of its location near what historical pass?"
Answer: The Khyber Pass. (It was not multiple choice.)
It's easy to forget that experts who can handle such esoterica are still, well, children.
A contestant who asks to use the bathroom at the start of the 90-minute-long preliminary contest quickly cancels his request after officials shuffle papers and conclude with dismay that no one may exit the room.
"I can hold it," the boy says with a frown.
Some contestants warm right up to the spotlight. Matthew Savage, a 12-year-old representing New Hampshire, stands a head below the others, his green National Geographic polo shirt grazing his knees. Matthew becomes a crowd favorite in the first round after the officials rebuff his request to lower the microphone. "Just tilt it," the moderator tells him.
He rotates the mike 180 degrees down and strains on tiptoe to reach it.
But sometimes the pressure proves overwhelming. Matthew's cheerful demeanor turns angry when he misses a question in the eighth round. He hurls his nametag to the floor and storms out of the room. Then he reconsiders and stomps back to his spot, tears streaking his face. Seeing his distress, his parents decide to carry him out of the room as he cries, "I just wanted to make it to the finals."
The other contestants feel his pain. They have prepared for months (or years, if they are repeat contestants) just for these two days. "Many of these kids are just brilliant," said Mary Lee Elden, the bee director.
They are hardly representative of their fellow Americans. A 2002 National Geographic-Roper survey found that less than one quarter of Americans ages 18-24 can find Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Israel on a map. Eleven percent, the survey found, cannot find ... the United States.
Maryland's representative, 14-year-old Justin Lane from Ellicott City, was just barely edged out of qualifying for the final competition. An eighth-grader at the Trinity School, Justin attended the finals, where pressure escalated for the 10 left standing. Cameras and stage lights crammed the auditorium. Each time someone missed a question, cameras captured the reaction.
"It was nicer to be in the audience," Justin said after the competition.
But for the winner, victory was sweet.
"It's beyond my dreams," said Wojtanik, holding a giant $25,000 check.