September 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This state capital on the Pearl River was named after a president of the United States. What is the city and state? 

Most people could not answer this questions without going through an internet search. But Brendan Pennington, 15, wouldn’t hesitate to answer. 

“It’s as if he’s faster than Google,” insists Kristen Job, a secondary Excellence in Youth coordinator at Westside’s middle and high schools. 

Pennington’s brain is filled with facts about countless coastlines, odd flags, and endless tough terrains. Maps, globes, and atlases are a breeze for him to analyze. At 3 years old, Pennington pointed at cellphone towers and told his mom they looked like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“He has a real world perspective,” his father, Paul, says.

That is one reason why, when Brendan competed in the 2014 Nebraska’s National Geographic State Bee, he won.

Then, he won the next year. And two years after that.

Job believes it’s unlikely someone else will be able to capture a three-peat. 

Students in schools all around the state are required to take a geography test from fourth to eighth grades, then the top-scorers compete in their own geography bees. Each school champion then takes an online test to be eligible to compete in the Top 100 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Competing in this event is optional, although Pennington believes the opportunity is worth it, as it helps the knowledge “stick” and creates opportunities for critical thinking.

Pennington prepared by poring over samples and researching facts before the competition.   

“When my parents asked me questions, I was like ‘ugh, it’s like an assignment,’” Pennington says. “But I liked looking at the atlas because it was fun.” 

He scored top honors in 2014, 2015, and 2017—but he almost lost the last time. The contest went to a tie-breaker. Pennington won by correctly naming the Tigris as the river that runs through Baghdad.

With prizes of $100 in his pocket and new atlases in his hands, Pennington headed to Washington, D.C., three times for the televised National Geographic Bee Championship.

Unfortunately, Nebraskans never saw this local boy on television. Last year, they almost did. Pennington got one question away from making it to the Top 10, the portion that is televised. He can’t recall the question that eliminated his chance on the small screen, but he doesn’t let it bother him. 

“I just thought…it would be great if I won, but if I lost, it wouldn’t change my life,” Pennington says. 

But the experience has done just that. Each time Pennington went to Washington, D.C., he met other students from different states and countries. Pennington still treasures these connections.

The state champion’s prize includes an all-expenses-paid trip for the student (and one adult, either a parent or a teacher, depending on the year), including tours of the capitol, meals, airfare, and hotel costs. Pennington had the opportunity to cruise the Potomac and enrich himself with history. He met Jill Biden, the wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, during an ice cream social at her house. She complimented his red Husker polo shirt.

For now, Pennington has to set aside his dreams of winning a national championship, since it isn’t open to high school students. Instead, he joined Westside’s Quiz Bowl and French Club. He also started cooking international foods and playing tennis.

Oh, and if you still don’t know the state capital on the Pearl River, it is
Jackson, Mississippi.


Secrets of a Three-Peat Geography Champion 

“If you are doing something you don’t enjoy, it will feel more like homework and you won’t get much out of it,” Pennington says. “But if you are passionate, you will learn a lot more from it.”

  • Study It. Pennington watched videos, read books, and studied maps for half an hour or so each day. Study patterns should reflect how a student learns best. One student  might need to look at an atlas, while flashcards might work better for another. “Study hard, but study right,” Pennington advises. 
  • Take a Chance. Pennington lost the state geography bee in the fourth and seventh grades. Pennington moved on and put more effort into the following years. “Even if you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t get discouraged. There will always be another chance,” Pennington believes. 
  • Stay Calm. During the competition, “take a chill pill.” Pennington believes if he looks calm on the outside, he will remain calm on the inside. “Just put yourself in the mindset that you are just getting asked questions. If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world,” Pennington says. 
  • Do Your Best. Hard work and effort do pay off in the end. “If you don’t understand another country or culture, it will be hard to critically think about what is going on in the world,” Pennington says. “And when you see things on the news, you will be able to understand it and make sense of it…there is a lot more out there than just Omaha.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.