Thursday, March 17, 2005

Little Mr. Geography, Part 2

"Mom, I need some kinda costume for the Gong Show! I have that suit I got from Value Village. What could we do with it?" Lucas asked wanting my help. He was a senior in high school in 2003 and he had entered his school's most cruel talent show.

"How about some giant paper question marks? I could pin them all over the suit." I responded. Later that day I found myself tracing and cutting out giant question marks to pin on the used dark suit. Lucas was Mr. Geography and here he was about to finish high school with a big splash or a gigantic dive and I was nervous about which it would be. The Gong Show, seemingly run by the "popular" kids, has been known to take down the most talented musicians with the sound of a gong if the contestant is "uncool".

Lucas's idea was to come out on stage without singing or dancing, wave a crisp new $50 bill around with the challenge he would pay it to anyone who could stump him with questions about all of the capital cities of the world. His sister was a freshman at the time and she was going with a bunch of friends. I cringed remembering how little Lucas sometimes had trouble with other children who did not understand his geography game. Would he just be laughed off of that stage?

"Mommy, mommy, let's play geography....again!" insisted three year old toddler, Lucas, to me--me a tad bedraggled from entertaining Lucas, caring for a 5 month old baby girl, and keeping a two year old Golden Retriever happy.

"Daddy will be home soon, sweetie, and he hasn't played geography all day. He'd love to play!" Lucas liked to take a little car in his hand, drive it all over the big world map pinned on the wall, and name every country, ocean, and island he traversed. "By the way, babes, do you want to try the new potty we bought for you?"

"NO! Vroom, vroom. I'm driving over Mada..gas..car; I need gas in my car to get to Sri Lanka and IND..I..A!" this tiny person dramatized. Now he was ignoring me. His grandmother constantly reminded me that any child who could point out Madagascar on a map and pronounce it correctly should clearly no longer be in diapers. She had no idea what I was dealing with day to day with this child--like I wanted two kids in diapers??!!

By the time Lucas was three and a half, still in diapers, and after beginning his first year of daily preschool, he could name every country and ocean in the world. He could do it two ways. We would point to the shape and he would name it or we'd name a country and tell him to show us which one it was. At first we thought it was simply color recognition until we switched to maps with different colors; it made no difference. I then thought if we had a globe, he would be thrown off because the shapes were askew; it made no difference. Furthermore, though he recognized letters and numbers, he couldn't read so he was getting no clues from the names written on the maps. Finally, Lucas actually understood what the map represented. At age three, he had been to Montana and Hawaii by car and airplane and he was completely aware that the shape of Montana with the little star for the capital was right where his grandma lived. He had seen out of the airplane window and he knew. As easily as a child knows the picture of their puppy represents the puppy, Lucas knew the map was a big picture of the earth. Lest anyone question my veracity, we have it all on videotape.

School at times was frustrating for Lucas because never was geography studied in the way he wanted. In kindergarten at Christmas time, the children "wrote" stories by dictating to parents an imaginative trip by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Well, nobody had quite the story that Lucas had. About the moment Santa skidded over the rooftops in Mongolia, his teacher thought we as his parents had made up the whole thing. In spite of school, Lucas's interest never waned; he could spend hours in his room "reading" atlases. The walls of his bedroom were covered with maps and the depth of his knowledge increased to include statistics about languages, religions, and cities. As he became a teen ager, when I'd clean his room, I would find paper back atlases and almanacs scattered under his bed along with an occasional baseball card.

Middle school presented the opportunity Lucas had been waiting for his entire life--the National Geographic Geography Bee. For three years in a row as a 6th, 7th and 8th grader, Lucas took home the first place trophy which he still proudly displays in his bedroom. Each year he qualified for the Washington State competition which was determined by a test after winning the school competition. Out of thousands of kids, 100 would be picked to go to State. Attending these comptetions impressed upon me that all of these kids were like Lucas and were very closely matched in skills. My husband, a scientist, decided there is a geography gene. Parents told similar story after story about their children sneaking atlases after bedtime or staring catatonically at a spinning globe. Unfortunately for Lucas, Washington seems to be a hotbed for the geography gene because he barely missed the final 10 three years in a row. And each year Lucas was involved, Washington had children in the final 10 nationally with Alex Trebec in Washington, DC. Statistically, percentage-wise, Lucas was right up there for geography ability. Undoubtedly, however, he was by far the cutest geography kid in the state and the nerd portion of the gene did not seem to affect him as much as the other kids.

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"You look....interesting, Lucas," as I pinned the last giant question mark on him. "And have fun--just have fun!" I said still not convinced this Gong Show thing was a good idea. But my handsome boy did look smashing in this outfit. Off he went and I worried for a couple of hours that he would bomb big time. I mean, really, who goes to a talent show as Mr. Geography?

A few hours later, he burst through the front door. "Mom, it was awesome? Totally awesome! I came out from behind a curtain and they played the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey and had cool lights and everything! And they did not gong me! They let me go and nobody--nobody was able to ask a question I couldn't answer. I still have the 50 bucks. Awesome!"

Still wondering, I verified with Kaley later that he indeed was a tremendous charismatic hit. As little sister she would have been the first to tell me eagerly and honestly that he was a gigantic geeky failure. To this day two years later, Kaley still has kids ask her if the awesome geography guy from the Gong Show is her brother.

"Wow!" I thought. "The little hand that always had a Hot Wheels car was now waving a $50 bill as a challenge to an entire audience. And the confidence he had in himself had surpassed mine."

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Maps in his room with pins to represent where he has been. Now it is not the little car anymore, it is him.