IT all started with a tattered atlas.
Lawson Fite, who emerged from 6 million contestants as the champion of the fourth annual National Geography Bee last month, credits his interest in geography with his family's old atlas, which he discovered at the age of 4.
"He was no bigger than the atlas," his father, John, recalls. "He ended up completely destroying the binding because he used it so much."
A ruined atlas seems a small price to pay for an interest that would eventually lead 13-year-old Lawson to a $25,000 college scholarship and national attention.
Lawson, who represented his home state of Washington in last year's competition as well, never missed a question throughout the local, state, and national contests this year. He says he owes his perfect score to reading two newspapers a day and studying geography trivia cards, textbooks, and maps.
Theresa Peru, Lawson's teacher, who accompanied him here both years, says he was more confident this year. While other contestants asked that questions be repeated and sometimes gave an answer just as the buzzer sounded, Lawson never buckled under the pressure, Ms. Peru says.
"I guess I knew what to expect this year," says Lawson, who was greeted at the airport upon his return home by 30 cheering friends and teachers.
Several hours after the televised final round, Lawson, still dressed in his finalist's fuchsia shirt, offered advice to next year's participants.
"Read everything," he said, picking up a miniature globe from a desk and studying it absentmindedly. "Once you think you know everything about the world, keep reading. You never know enough."
Reading is what enabled Lawson to answer the question that would clinch the championship for him.
"EEZs are areas extending 200 miles from shore over which countries have sovereign rights for resource exploration," began Geography Bee host Alex Trebek, the moonlighting star of the television game show Jeopardy. He then asked the remaining two finalists to identify the initials EEZ. Lawson says he knew the answer was "exclusive economic zone" because he read about the economic term in an article about the Persian Gulf in a weekly news magazine.
He may be casual about the questions he answered correctly, but the eighth grader from Vancouver, Wash., still smarts over the question that caused him to drop out of the preliminary rounds of the Bee last year:
The Paraguay River and several Amazon tributaries have their headwaters in a plateau region in which South American country? Answer: Brazil.
"There's an axiom about geography: When in doubt about a South American country, say Brazil," Lawson says. "But I didn't listen to it. I said Bolivia." The experience just made him more determined to return, he says.
The National Geographic Society launched the competition in 1989 after an international Gallup Poll showed that Americans ranked in the bottom third of young people aged 18 to 24 in geographic knowledge. Since then, the number of participants has doubled. This year, Lawson's competitors included more than 6 million students in Grades 4 through 8 from all 50 states and the five United States territories.
Geography is catching on in the political arena as well. It has a place in the Bush administration's America 2000 plan for education reform. By the year 2000, students leaving Grades 4, 8, and 12 must be able to demonstrate competence in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.
All the attention has revolutionized geography education, observes Katherine Sandmeier, a former teacher who works on the National Geographic Society's geography-education program.
"It used to be that students who didn't want to take world history chose geography, because it was just a matter of memorizing states and capitals," she says. "Now more consideration is put on elements like trade, economics, and international relations."
By 1994, the states of California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Tennessee will require a high school geography course for admission into their state-university systems.
While Lawson can't decide at this point whether he wants to apply his skills to a career as a cartographer, a lawyer, or an elected official, he acknowledges the importance geography will have in whatever path he chooses.
"With the way the world is today, anyone who doesn't know anything about geography isn't going to get anywhere," he says.
Lawson does find time for activities that don't involve atlases. He collects baseball cards and reads Agatha Christie mysteries. He doesn't mind that most of his friends "don't know where Tajikistan is." Spanish classes are part of his curriculum, and he hopes to someday speak Japanese, Arabic, and French as well.
Besides Washington, Lawson has lived in North Carolina, Alabama, and Illinois, as a result of his father's job as an Air Force officer and now as a commercial airline pilot. But this has in no way hampered the teenager's yen to travel to more places. His destination of choice would be the city of Fes in Morocco because of its Old World charm.
"There's only one street people can drive down," he explains. "Everywhere else is mules only."
And the National Geography Bee champion's second favorite destination? Disney World.