When 11-year-old Susannah Batko-Yovino and her parents posed for the networks after the National Geography Bee in late May, their smiles sunburning the audience, you could almost hear the adults saying to themselves behind the cheering, Well, there's one we won't have to worry about. And it's likely they won't.
Probably nobody ever had to worry about Susannah, a compact and strikingly self-possessed personage, who became the first girl to win the 2-year-old Geography Bee when she correctly located Mt. Erebus on the continent of Antarctica. Susannah, the only girl out of 14 finalists, didn't really lose her cool till the moment she won the contest. Then, hearing the audience roar, she gasped and put her hands to her face.
The tableau was familiar. Now that the school year is over, it is bee swarm season in Washington, and the calendar has overflowed with opportunities for those who can get up on a platform and spell, figure, or otherwise handle themselves well before massed adults. Some events are traditional: the 63-year-old National Spelling Bee involves 9 million kids and $5,000 prizes and features an institutionalized "Comfort Room" for the losers. But the swarm has grown this year as never before. There is the Citizen Bee, covering history and geography; it's not to be confused with the Civics Bee, the Math Counts! contest in Arlington, the annual Math Olympiad (sponsored by math teachers here, but taking place in Beijing), or the famous local Latin bees. There's even the National Historical Map-Drawing Contest, a vaguely bee-like event launched last year by the U.S. Commission on the Bicentennial. Nobody is counting, "but they do seem to be everywhere, don't they?" says Chuck Timanus, a map contest staffer.
The sudden popularity of bees isn't hard to fathom. Especially now, quick, small-bore, low-cost "solutions" to the education problem are a hot commodity. Bees spotlight a given academic subject, they offer college funds for the gifted and deserving, and they mantle smart kids in the kind of public glory reserved mostly for athletes.
They also spark the creation of new curriculum and the distribution of lively materials. The map contest prize is $5,000, to the school, for the purchase of history and geography materials. National Geographic, which gives the biggest single prize of $25,000 (to the child, in a college account), launched its bee last year in response to a hair-raising study showing that American adults, let alone children, couldn't find America on a map or identify the Pacific Ocean.
And yet for all the excitement, bees are faintly odd occasions, and the discomfort of some adults (most clearly reflected in the disproportionate attention paid by newspapers to sobbing losers) can probably be traced to the many things that such contests are not. They are not broad outreach programs for large numbers of kids otherwise untouched by academics. An inescapable fact of bee season is the high percentage of repeat winners and finalists; even more marked, and less surprising, is the number of repeat schools. Last year, when the Bicentennial Commission held its first map contest, the intermediate-level winner was a satisfyingly obscure fifth-grade class from a rural Missouri parochial school. The prize trip to Washington marked the first time the teachers or any but two of the kids had flown in an airplane. Judges this year were brought up short when, out of 146 unmarked entries, they found they'd picked the same school again.
Some kids find themselves on the circuit like amateur athletes, skipping from math to civics to spelling bees, all with competing requirements and sometimes overlapping schedules. "She competed in the math contest in Western Pennsylvania last week and came in third," said Susannah's father, "and we were actually a little relieved she didn't win it and go to the finals because we didn't know if we could take off another whole week." Not all parents are so relaxed. "There are always calls from parents whose child should have won," says the Geographic's bee manager, "and you know right away which ones are Little League."
The Geographic bee, though new, was smooth and straightforward, with questions not outrageously difficult and numbers of contestants not outrageously high -- especially compared with the famously brutal National Spelling Bee, in which hundreds of finalists wait for their one word, flub it under bright lights and are led off to the Comfort Room. (The Geographic says a spelling bee staffer called up this year asking for suggestions on how to humanize the proceedings.) Here, it's friendlier, with "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek asking the questions and chatting up the contestants. Each child who's eliminated gets a round of sympathetic applause while a National Geographic staffer unfastens his throat mike and leads him off the stage. Still, at least one eighth-grader in this year's group was sufficiently bee'd out to clown around beforehand and then, missing a question, to burst into noisy tears.
Others can't be fazed. Asked afterward about the $25,000 first-prize check for college, Susannah Batko-Yovino grins and says, "That's Princeton money." Asked why Princeton, she says she's been reading about it in a book called "Who Got Einstein's Office?", which is about the Institute for Advanced Study. Susannah went from the bee to "Good Morning America," and she subsequently addressed the Pennsylvania State Senate. It's true that for every such child laureled with a prize, 20 will be disappointed, and 10 of these will feel an upsurge of humiliation for years afterward at the very mention of geography. On the other hand, ambitions always carry a risk, and once an 11-year-old has stood on a stage in front of a large audience, hearing applause and cheers, something has been given that can never be taken away.
In any event, losing has its perks. "They gave me $500," says a state finalist over his shoulder, "and I'm going to the mall."
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.