The other day I got an email from old friends who’d spotted me in my hometown newspaper–The Republic (Columbus, Indiana). Apparently, it was exactly ten years ago, on April 2, 2001, that I took fourth place in Indiana’s state geography bee.
Of course, it can be depressing to think that your greatest achievement is ten years behind you. But the National Geographic Bee was a lot of fun. Part of the fun is that I don’t remember studying very much at all. I looked at maps for fun, studied them obsessively, was fascinated by the detail and the way that rivers, mountains, or civilizations spread across the page. (Why are maps so fascinating? Is a matter of aesthetics, of looking so rich and detailed? Is it a matter of imagination, of trying to picture a place in your mind? Is it a matter of the place-names themselves? Is that why I want to go to Ljubljana more than Brno?)
So I looked at maps for fun. And I played a totally wonderful computer game called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which I miss terribly, and which engaged the player as a detective whose job it was to travel from country to country, following the movements of various vile villains with names like Harry Bacque and Dinah Myte. The ultimate prize, of course, was the evil genius behind the nefarious (but vague) plot: Carmen Sandiego herself.
Carmen Sandiego and reading for fun were my main study aids. In elementary school, I had a peculiar form of precociousness which made me an eager student of global geography and tactical military history. If there had been a National American Civil War Bee, I’d have won it handily; there was probably a time when I could name every corps, division, and brigade commander at the battle of Gettysburg. (I can still do the Union divisions.) Geography was more of a sideline while I compulsively devoured academic studies of regimental placements at the Battle of Franklin.
Anyway: the point is I really didn’t study very much for the big event. I’d gone to the state competition in 2000 and been eliminated about halfway through the first round (still got a free grey t-shirt), and in the run-up to 2001 my parents bought an official Geo-Bee computer game to hone my study skills, realizing I wasn’t going to study any other way. The game was a lot less fun than Carmen’s, though, partly because the questions were asked by a cartoon bee. Partly, though, my map-reading had already zipped past the point where the cartoon bee could offer much help.
We drove up to Indianapolis on April 2, 2001: my parents, my geography/history teacher Mr. C, and me. I was very fond of Mr. C, which tends to surprise my fellow alumni of Stewart Elementary. He was there, after all, because his mother owned the (private) school and she needed a history teacher, and because he was unemployed, slightly awkward, a little bit lonely, tall, gangly, and very funny but very aloof. He found a kitten outside the school, adopted it, and named it “Niche.” He left his gigantic shoes lying around the classroom and taught us extremely valuable songs like this one. He was the keeper of Stewart’s valuable collection of Civil War books. And once in class he delivered this unforgettable (at least I haven’t forgotten it) soliloquy:
“Once there was a bird called the passenger pigeon. That’s the kind of pigeon where you can tie a message to their feet and send the message to somebody because the pigeon always knows where it has to fly to go home. It was the most common bird in America; there were three million of them! But the last passenger pigeon died in 1918 so they’re all extinct now. We’ll never see them again. The reason they went extinct is, all the passenger pigeons are really really picky when they have to choose a mate. So all the guy pigeons would go their whole lives meeting girl pigeons and thinking, no, no, until finally they were too old and they couldn’t have baby pigeons. So eventually the passenger pigeons went extinct because they were too picky. ……just like me.”
I should point out that this did not strike the elementary school version of me as being even slightly out of the ordinary.
We rode up to Indianapolis in slightly awkward silence. I was a little confused that Mom had to tell Mr. C to buckle up (don’t all adults buckle up?) so I retreated into Don’t Know Much About the World by Kenneth C. Davis, or some other similar trivia book.
The contest itself was a whirlwind, a primary round weeding out the men from the boys (figuratively), a second round I don’t remember at all, and then I was told I was going to the finals.
The final round was on an actual stage, with everyone’s families watching, a TV camera or two, and a clutch of small-town reporters who were going to get their hometown kids (and schools) a nice story. Some local TV personality administered questions after announcing that the top kid would win a trip to Washington, DC, and the National Geographic Bee, and that the first three kids would win a gorgeous National Geographic globe. I decided I was going for a globe.
In reply to the obvious question: I only remember one question they asked. It was the question that knocked me out of the tournament, because I said that Norway was neutral in World War II (nope: Sweden). That was the second wrong answer, and it was a double-elimination round; there were four kids left after my exit. Only–the judges weren’t keeping count right. The next guy gave a wrong answer and left the stage before they realized that I should be gone too. And thus, triumphantly, I claimed fourth place. Better than fifth!
Leaving the stage, by the way, meant that I was welcomed by my family and Mr C and we deliberated the questions and grabbing a snack. I never did find out, or at least never remembered, who actually won.
Our hometown newspaper had, indeed, dispatched a reporter. The woman from The Republic asked how I felt and I said something about how four was my lucky number and I was very happy to be fourth. That was true. The newspaper ran a story, a picture, and (Columbus not being a big place) a congratulatory editorial. To this day, it’s the only media interview I’ve given, and one of three (?) times I’ve appeared in a news story at all.
So yes: April 2, 2001 was the peak of my celebrity. The height of my career. The 2001 t-shirt was a striking navy blue, and I still have it–here in London. Might wear it tomorrow. It was gigantic back then, and even now it’s a bit like a jumbo pillowcase.
There are two more things we still have. One of them is a globe. Mr. C knew that I was a bit sad not to have won one, so at the elementary school graduation that year, Stewart presented me with a brand-new, glorious globe. It’s still in my room back at home (along with the 2002 t-shirt: green).
The other memento, of sorts, wasn’t related to the Geography Bee at all: it was Mr. C’s adopted cat, Niche. Only, we renamed her Muffin and she’s still irresistibly photogenic after all these years:
We’d taken Muffin home a few months earlier, and after the competition was over and we were returning home the fourth-happiest family in Indiana, we decided to let Mr. C see how she was doing. He petted her and admired her beauty–she’d grown bunches since coming into our care. She was shy, though. Mr. C said, “Aw–she remembers me.” We didn’t say anything back. We weren’t so sure.
Fast-forward ten years. Where are they now? Stewart Elementary continues to thrive; this March, three of its alumni met in London and had a wonderful spring holiday together. One of them is still obsessed with maps. He knows of a London book market with an 1890s lithograph of the state of Indiana, and he’s going to take it home with him at the end of the summer. Muffin is retiring into an aging-cat lifestyle of glamor shots and naps. As for Mr. C, according to Google and Facebook he is 6’2, “tired alot,” single, and living in Indianapolis. Carmen Sandiego is long gone from the Reinhart home. But the t-shirts are still there, and so is the globe.
And, if you open the April 2, 2011 Republic, you’ll catch a little flashback to the good old days, and a smiling photograph of my closest brush with celebrity.