Parker Johnson loves to read. He always has, the Sampson Middle School eighth-grader attested during an interview this week, crediting that love of soaking up the written word for his success in not one but two National Geographic Bees.
Johnson won the local level competitions in seventh grade and again this year, in the eighth. It was the first step in the process that led him to compete at the state level, just this month making it all the way to Level 5 in an eight level mastery competition with 101 other youngsters from across North Carolina.
Each year thousands of schools in the United States participate in the National Geographic Bee using materials prepared by the National Geographic Society. The contest is designed to encourage teachers to include geography in their classrooms, spark student interest in the subject, and increase public awareness about geography. Schools with students in grades four through eight are eligible for this entertaining and challenging test of geographic knowledge.
Although admittedly a little shy, none of that showed through as Parker sat relaxed and animated, talking about his love of reading, the Bee and how that competition has helped him to grow both personally and academically over the past two years.
“It’s just fun,” the eighth-grader said, a sheepish grin spreading across his face as he described winning at the local level and then preparing for the test that is a requirement for entry into the state level competition.
“You don’t just win at the local level and go to state,” he pointed out. “You have to take a test to qualify. It’s hard too.”
The multiple choice test, asking myriad geography-related questions, was taken by 40,000 youngsters in grades 4-8. Of those, 102, including the Sampson middle-schooler,actually competed earlier in April at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“The questions got harder as you went. It starts out with multiple choice and then moves on to direct questions. I was really, really happy I got as far as I did.”
He was happy, too, he said, that he got to the state competition twice.
“That’s hard to do. It made me really, really happy,” Parker said, looking over to share a smile with his proud mother, Jamie. “I hadn’t won anything in along time, probably since I was a top reader in the fourth and fifth grade, so winning this, and twice, was nice.”
His mother returns a smile nodding her head in agreement. “We were very proud of him,” she said of herself and husband Todd.
The middle-schooler recalled getting interested in participating in the National Geographic Bee after Margaret Turlington with Simple Gifts came to the school and announced that there would be a local competition.
“I was in seventh grade then. She made that announcement and I thought it would be interesting to participate, so I decided to try out.”
He believed, he said, that he could compete and win.
“I thought I would have a good chance; I, at least, wanted to try.”
Parker, his mother said, has never shied away from trying new things, confident in his abilities since a young child first learning to put words together from plastic letters made for play in the bathtub. “He was 2 or 2 1/2 when we got him those letters. It didn’t take him long to begin forming some words.”
From there, his love of reading took off.
“I’ve been reading a long time,” the teen said. “It’s fun and it opens doors that haven’t been opened. You know, it tells me things I never knew before; gives me life lessons and offers great information.”
His interest runs the gamut, from World War II and military history to general history, geography, biology and fiction-writing.
He’s read all the classics, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and, as a fourth-grader took on Harry Potter.
His love of history and the military, he said, stems from tremendous family ties to the armed services.
“My great-grandpa was a Green Beret and one of my grandpa’s was in the National Guard and my mama’s dad was in the Army. With most of my family involved, I guess my interest in history and the wars was natural.”
Participating in the National Geographic Bee, Parker said, was a great experience and one that he would carry with him for a lifetime.
“It really, really helps you with your social studies and test-taking,” the teen said, grinning as he recalled the reaction from his classmates as his knowledge of subjects grew. “They think I’m a genius,” he said, laughing.
Taking part in the Bee also builds your self-confidence and helps you learn to handle pressure, two things that, he said, has helped him to grow.
“I consider myself shy, but this (the Bee) has helped.”
Studying for the Bee, he said, also helps you become a better test-taker. “My science teacher says I’m really good at taking tests … I really do think it’s because of how much I prepared for the Bee, that and all the reading I do.”
If he could offer fellow students any advice, the young man stressed, it would be the value of reading. “Some kids don’t like to read that much, but they’re missing out. There’s so much information, life lessons. It just makes you a better person, a better student.”
While his National Geographic Bee days are now behind him, Parker Johnson said he’ll continue to read, study and work toward other goals, including one day in the not-so-distant future going to college and majoring in Marine Biology
“Most summers I go to Marine Biology camp or Marine Quest at UNC-W. I’ve always loved it and I really want to major in it when I get to college.”
For now, he’s happy being a fun-loving eighth-grader preparing for his final weeks of school.
The eighth-grader has plenty to fill his days since he is working toward his Eagle as a member of Boy Scout Troop 80, reading, playing with younger brother, Sampson Middle sixth-grader Peyton Johnson, and doing all the normal things that 14-year-olds like to do.
But he’ll always have one eye on his future and the doors he believes all his study and reading will open. “I’m excited about what comes next,” the youngster said.