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Where in the world is… Frank Kenny?

by Morgan Smith

Do you know how many countries speak Arabic? Or maybe which country produces the most coffee? One south Charlotte student knows, and he’s headed to the National Geographic Bee next week to show off his skills.

Frank Kenny, a Charlotte Latin School eighth-grader, has been mesmerized with geography and maps ever since he got his first atlas when he was 5 years old. Now, nine years later, Frank said he’s surprised he’s made it to the national level competition, where he’ll compete against 53 other students from around the United States, Atlantic and Pacific territories and Department of Defense Dependent Schools.

It’s the 24th year for the competition, where students in grades fourth through eighth gather in Washington, D.C., to compete for the 2012 Bee crown and three scholarships worth $50,000. All 54 finalists are winners of their state-level geographic bees, in which they beat millions of students earning a seat in the national competition.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Frank said. “I want to see if I can win – the questions will be much harder, so I just have to read more books.”

And that’s his main strategy: read, read, read.

“He’s definitely ramped up the studying,” Adair Kenny, Frank’s mom, said. “He really hasn’t prepared up until this point because it’s just something he really enjoys knowing about.”

But this isn’t Frank’s first time competing in a geography bee. He’s participated in the bee at Charlotte Latin for the past three years, and although he didn’t place in sixth grade, he placed third last year as a seventh-grader. Now, he’s the first Charlotte Latin student to make it to the national level, something he’s proud of.

“It’s good because it gets the school a bit of attention,” he said.

Teacher Mary Lou Lewis has been the bee coordinator at Charlotte Latin for around eight years, and although she didn’t have a hand in Frank’s geography education, she said she has no doubt he can go far in the competition.

“He’s just an exceptional young man,” she said. “It sometimes is the luck of the draw – there are always obscure questions that nobody’s going to know, but I’m sure it’s a combination of Frank’s skill, as well. That’s why to me, it was a very pleasant surprise. I think Frank is just naturally bright.”

Lewis explained that the bee covers everything from cultural geography to political geography, and that sometimes it’s more about understanding geography itself and using different cues to figure out answers.

For Frank’s mom, she’s just proud of her son.

“We were surprised; we knew that it was always something he enjoyed, but he just knew all the answers (at the state bee),” Adair Kenny said. “All of us like to travel as a family, but while we’re all interested in the places we’ve been, he has always taken a great interest in the people, the place, the culture and the geographic area more so than others.”

Frank’s favorite region to study is Eastern Asia, such as China, Japan and India.

“I like them because they’ve been around a long time and they’ve preserved their culture pretty well,” he said.

And now, as Frank does his last preparations, he said he’s starting to feel the nerves.

“I just know (the questions) are much, much more difficult,” he said. “I don’t think there will be multiple choice like at the other bees.”

Frank will participate in the preliminary round Tuesday, May 22. The top 10 finalists will each win $500 and will advance to the final round May 24, which will be moderated by Alex Trebek, host of the quiz show “Jeopardy!” and will be aired May 24 on the National Geographic Channel from 8 to 10 p.m. The top winner will receive a $25,000 college scholarship, second place a $15,000 scholarship and third place a $10,000 scholarship.

In the meantime, Frank said geography is just a hobby of his, along with tennis, swimming, biking and running.

“It’s just different,” he said. “It’s not like math where it’s just one thing or concept – it’s comprehensive and diverse.”

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