Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 11, 2013

Geography wiz: It's just a hobby

High Plain fifth-grader one of state's top 100

By Dustin Luca
Staff Writer

---- — If you ask him, Alistair McBrien is just a kid who likes to read. He taught himself how to plow through literary content as a tot, and today his material of choice is National Geographic.

There’s no particular reason why, the 11 year old says. Geography isn’t his favorite thing on earth. When he isn’t reading, he’s building models of historic aircraft, and he envisions himself being a dog trainer when he grows up.

So when the National Geographic Bee moved through High Plain Elementary School a few weeks ago, it was a welcome surprise to his family when he found himself taking top honors at his school and ending up in a statewide geography bee.

“We didn’t really know he had such a knowledge of geography until this school bee,” said his mother, Angela McBrien. She attributes his success to “a really good memory for all kinds of facts.”

“He has always read everything. He taught himself how to read when he was 2 and a half,” she said. “That’s what’s helping him in the geography bee.”

Earlier this year, the Geography Bee process started for Alistair when his school brought the bee to its fifth-graders. Every student was given seven questions to answer, and he got five correct. After securing a tie-breaker win to net a second-place spot in his class, Alistair went on to the school’s finals.

“I won that,” he said. “Then I had to take a test.”

He soon found out he was among the top 100 test scores in Massachusetts, sending him to a statewide geography bee in Worcester last Friday, April 5.

The winner of the contest nets $100, the complete National Geographic archive on DVD and a trip to Washington D.C. for the contest’s national finals in May, hosted by Alex Trebek. The winner of the national contest receives an all-expenses paid trip to the Galápagos Islands.

For the National Geographic enthusiast, it’s a dream vacation.

Alistair was excited about the trip to Worcester, he said, because he got “to take a day off of school, and even better, it doesn’t count [as an absence] because I’m doing something,” he said.

In advance of heading to the state finals, Alistair said he didn’t plan on studying or reading back-issues of National Geographic.

Then again, he didn’t study or prepare for either of the two school bees he went through.

“I don’t think I’ll do anything because I didn’t do anything [at the school level],” he said. “If I goof up this round by studying, then I’d ruin whatever has gotten me this far.”

When asked if he’d at least brush up by reading material on Wikipedia, he frantically shook his head.

“I don’t trust Wikipedia that much because anyone can put something on it,” he scornfully said.

Unfortunately, Alistair won’t be going to the nation’s capitol. He was among the majority of state finalists — around 90 of the top 100 scorers from the Berks to the North Shore — who were knocked out in the first round of the bee in Worcester, his mother said.

The questions students faced were above and beyond what Alistair faced at High Plain Elementary, covering topics that Angela said were “really testing the kids.”

“He did well, but not good enough,” she said, with a chuckle. “He was part of the majority.”