FLASHBACK: 1 YEAR AGO. THE 2016 GEOGRAPHY BEE.
Alex was one of 12 kids in the Geo Bee last year. I thought he had a chance to win in. The boy is good at geography, regularly reads an Atlas for fun, traces maps and puts them up on his walls. And he studied some by taking geography quizzes online.
One by one, kids got eliminated until it was down to just two kids — one of them being Alex. At this point they go into the final round. His competition was a girl named Britney B, and Britney B was trouble. Britney had come in second the previous year and had apparently been preparing to win with incredible drive. Alex was against a deadly foe – and it was an epic battle.
Alex and Britney went mono-e-mono for 17 rounds. It was 40 edge-of-your-seat minutes before Britney finally knocked Alex out by naming the country south of Libya (Chad). Britney deserved it and she won.
Alex came off the stage. His face was all red and his expression was bizarre. That’s when I realized he was holding back tears. He was trying to make his way back to me and Shani, but his class mobbed him. Twenty-six fourth graders surrounded him, unsure of what to do. They muttered “good job, Alex” and other nice stuff. They were all a bit somber.
But one kid knew exactly what to do. Max L, and autistic boy in Alex’s class, burst through the crowd and sacked Alex with a bear hug. He literally lifted Alex off the ground.
Max L’s hug had the effect of turning on a magnet surrounded by iron filings. Instantly the entire class, all 26 of them, clicked together into a group hug with Alex at the center.
That is a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
NOW…imagine a super villain from a movie. Lex Luthor defeated. Sauron vanquished. The villain slinks back to their lair with a heart set on revenge. The villain plots, rebuilds, smolders, grows stronger…
In this movie, the super villain is Alex.
He would email me worksheets and blank maps to print at work. He spent his birthday money on geography quiz books. He downloaded geography trivia apps. He found learning modules online. He drove me, Jack, and Shani nuts making us quiz him on the rivers of Asia and the capitols of Africa.
FADE OUT OF TRAINING MONTAGE.
RESOLVE TO: GYMNASIUM, PRESENT DAY. KIDS AND PARENTS FILL THE SPACE. TWELVE CHILDREN ARE LINED UP ALONG A TABLE ON STAGE. IT IS THE 2017 GEOGRAPHY BEE. ALEX NUCKOLS IS AMONG THE 12 KIDS.
CUT TO AUDIENCE. MIKE NUCKOLS WATCHES WITHOUT TALKING TO ANYONE. THERE ARE VISIBLE SWEAT STAINS AROUND BOTH ARMPITS.
Look, I’m not gonna spend too much time talking about myself, but if you know me and think I’m a nice guy, you are mistaken. I am in that audience and I am sizing up each of the other 11 kids with nothing but malice in my heart.
“Shani — who is that kid? Is he in accelerated math? No? Good. Very good.”
I’m also checking out parents. I know some of these competitive bastards and I wouldn’t put it past ’em to try and mouth the answers to their kid. Well, not on my watch, Tiger Mom!
Oh, I should also mention that among the competition is Alex’s best friend, Aidan. Actually, we’re gonna take a few minutes to talk about Aidan.
I will begin by saying: I love the boy. Aidan is articulate, polite, imaginative, truly kind, and a semi-professional pain in the ass.
When Aidan sleeps over, he and Alex bed down surrounded by stuffed animals and special blankets — and neither are the least bit self-conscious about it. We have a wooden hockey stick that is only allowed in the basement. Aidan brings it upstairs every time he comes over. Aidan will lead Alex to my tool bench, drape cords and power tools all over both of them, and they will play space cops for hours. I bought an expensive set of 2-way radios for canoe trips and I hid them in the basement so my kids wouldn’t play with them. Aidan found them in less than 20 minutes and he didn’t even know I had them.
In truth, I find Aidan and Alex’s friendship somewhat magical. They spend a lot of time laughing hysterically together and they’re a little bit like a comedy team.
However…at that moment, my favorite thing about Aidan was that I was pretty sure he wouldn’t beat Alex in the Geo Bee. I knew Aidan had only started studying once he qualified and I know his parents are super cool (which means no risk he’s being force-fed geography for weeks).
So the Geo Bee starts. Alex breezed through the first couple rounds, and I was pretty sure by that point that there were no ringers I had to worry about. All the kids were smart and pretty good at geography, but none of them seemed anywhere near Alex’s super villain level of knowledge.
One by one I watched them get knocked out, nodding with satisfaction.
And through all this, Aidan was hanging in there. He would crow out his answers loudly and he got every one right, except some obscure question about a country in Africa I’d never even heard of. Aidan obviously didn’t know, so he joyfully called out: ITALY!
But I’ll be damned if the two finalists weren’t Alex and Aidan.
Three questions. Whoever does better takes the crown.
Question 1: The newly-established Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is off the coast of which US state?
No brainer, Hawaii. Alex would definitely get that. But when they called on him…
And my heart sunk. Crumbled. I pictured myself congratulating Aidan and pretending to mean it. Then Aidan (bless his heart) called out his answer:
And the boy was suddenly welcome in my home again.
Question 2: The endangered snow leopard can be found in this Asian country?
Both boys said Russia and got that wrong too.
Question 3: This country, north of Nicaragua, is home to the Patuca River?
Alex held up his answer and I could tell he knew it was right:
Let’s go to the video…
Here is a photo of the still best friends…
And finally, here is a shot of the well-deserving, 2017 Geo Bee Champion: