Buzz of the bee

editorial notebook

April 04, 2009|By Peter Jensen

What lake is the source of the Mississippi River?

When Scott Jeffrey, a geography professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville, read the question aloud, the 13-year-old girl with the pony tail nearly burst out laughing. Her face reddened, she shook her head and you could read the words on her mind, "What if?"

Lake Itasca. Just two summers ago in Minnesota, she was wading the Mississippi headwaters on a family trip. I took the photo of her standing ankle-deep in Itasca mud myself. She knew the answer better than anyone in the room. Fifteen missed the tiebreaker question; two got it right and earned spots in the finals.

But Anna could only watch and chuckle. She'd been eliminated in the preliminary round, scoring correctly on five of eight questions, two short of the cut. She could not remember what country is north of Burundi. (Rwanda is now and forever imprinted on her brain.)

But that is the way of the Maryland State Geographic Bee as the top geography students in grades 4 through 8 from across the state faced off in Catonsville on Friday to determine who would represent the state in the National Geographic Bee next month in Washington, D.C.

Spelling contests may get more notice in the popular culture but the geography bee is the more compelling challenge, requiring youngsters to demonstrate a much broader knowledge, from animal life and climate to industry and state capitals, mountain ranges and current events. If spelling is an internal quest, geography is the polar opposite, an exploration of a richly complex and intriguing world beyond their backyards.

To watch girls and boys, the oldest of whom is 14, show such deep awareness of distant continents and countries is a wonder to behold. They knew that Florence Nightingale saved lives during the Crimean War, that the 6th of October Bridge is in Egypt, that the Godavari River is in India, and that the Persian Gulf's most northern capital is Kuwait City.

As Professor Jeffrey informed them at the start, they had already proved themselves winners. The 101 contestants were drawn from 363,000 eligible students statewide. All had won school-wide bees and then scored sufficiently high in a standardized written test.

But in the end, there could be only one. And that title was earned by a skinny sixth-grader in a knit shirt and chinos with shaggy blond hair who looked like he arrived from Baltimore County's Dumbarton Middle School by skateboard. The winning question: What is the largest city in Siberia?

His fellow finalist guessed Vladivostok, but James B. DeVinne, who boned up for the bee by reading Wikipedia entries on his computer, knew the answer without hesitation: Novosibirsk. Besides the trip to D.C., he took home $100, an atlas, a globe and a great deal of satisfaction.

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