Brad Dennis' interest in geography started with his interest in the dictionary, which was sort of an outgrowth of his fascination with the Yellow Pages. WhenBrad was 3 his hands were just about always black from leafing through the phonebook, looking for pictures of cars and trucks.
By the time he was 5 he was more interested in the words than the pictures. Pretty soon he was reading the dictionary, which is where, one fateful day, he stumbled upon the word Qatar.Brad was so excited that he had found a q not followed by a u that he went tothe atlas to look up more about the little Persian Gulf country that dared to flaunt the conventions of Western spelling.
That was when he was 7. Now Brad is 8, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that day: the Nile, the Yangtze, the Hwang Ho, the Mackenzie. Brad knows the names of them all. He can also name 170 countries in alphabetical order. And their capitals. And their official language and most important religions. And he can find all these countries on the map.
Brad's feat is even more startling in the context of America's appalling ignorance about where in the world the rest of the world is, as indicated by a National Geographic Society survey released last August.
"Have you heard of the lost generation?" asked National Geographic President Gilbert M. Grosvenor at a press conference announcing the dismal survey. He was referring not to Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, that lost generation of the 1920s, but the average American of the 1980s. "They are lost. They haven't the faintest idea where they are."
In fact 14 percent of the Americans surveyed could not pick out the United States on a world map.
Brad, on the other hand, knows where Tuvalu is, and Kiribati, and Maranhao. He can name the provinces and capitals of Australia and Canada and the states andcapitals of Brazil - in Portuguese.
He recently astounded a gathering of the Utah Geographical Society with a presentation of his geography skills, and tomorrow, in honor of National Geography Awareness Week, he will repeat that presentation at Utah State University. He will also tour Logan elementary schools.
His father, Ronald Dennis, has sent information about Brad to Johnny Carson. Someone from the "Tonight Show" staff called to talk to Brad, but according to his dad the interview didn't go all that well, so he has sent them a video of Brad in action.
Brad isn't the world's most brilliant conversationalist. But he's great at lists. And he has a non-stop curiosity about anything geographical. He and his dad spend hours talking about glaciers as big as the whole United States and about countries that might be fun to visit. A current favorite is Albania.
"Our relationship with the rest of the world would improve greatly if we learned about other countries," notes Ron Dennis.
Father and son are looking forward to the first-ever National Geography Bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Although Brad is only in the thirdgrade he has been given permission to compete in the contest, which is open to fourth through eighth graders.
Individual school contests will be held Jan. 9. Each winner will then take a written exam to determine the 100 state finalists. A statewide geography bee will be held April 7, and the national championship will be held in Washington, D.C., on May 18-19. First prize is a $25,000 college scholarship.
Ron Dennis, who teaches both Portuguese and Welsh at Brigham Young University, has made up a list of 100 questions for Brad to study. When Brad has those mastered, his dad will come up with 100 more.
"You can't imagine how much I've learned," says Ron Dennis. But he says he knows he can't keep up with his son. "I've decided to be his coach, not his competitor."
He says he never pushes Brad to learn any of this, but he does try to give him recognition. After his recent presentation to the Utah Geographical Society, he gave Brad a copy of "A Geolinguistic Handbook," engraved on the cover with "Brad R. Dennis, Geographile."
Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Brad leans over toward his dad and asks, in a whisper, what you call that person who stands at the border and checks all the cars that enter the country.
"A border guard," he finally announces.
It seems sort of a stationary job for a guy who is so fascinated with the far corners world. But with an 8-year-old's logic, Brad explains his choice: "You get to look at all those license plates."
See if you can match wits with 8-year-old Brad Dennis, who knows the following (and a lot more, but we won't ask you to name all the countries of the world in alphabetical order):
- Name the 10 largest countries.
- Name the 10 smallest countries.
- Name the 10 longest rivers.
- What are the new names of these countries: British Honduras, Dahomey, Upper Volta, Cambodia, Basutoland, Ellice Islands, Northern Rhodesia, Rhodesia, Congo, Dutch Guiana.
Here are the answers to the geography quiz on C1:
- The 10 largest countries: Russia, Canada, China, U.S., Brazil, Australia, India, Argentina, Sudan, Algeria.
- The 10 smallest countries: Vatican City, Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu, San Marino, Liechtenstein, St. Kitts and Nevis, Maldives, Malta, Grenada.
- The 10 longest rivers: Nile, Amazon, Yangtze, Congo, Amur, Hwang Ho, Lena, Mackenzie, Mekong, Niger.
- Name changes: Belize (formerly British Honduras), Benin (Dahomey), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), Kampuchea (Cambodia), Lesotho (Basutoland), Tuvalu (Ellice Islands), Zambia (Northern Rhodesia), Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Zaire (Congo), Suriname (Dutch Guiana).