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Friday, April 27 News

Middlesex student headed to National Geography Bee

When John Phipps was 3 years old, his father gave him a copy of "Afghanistan to Zimbabwe: Country Facts That Helped Me Win the National Geographic Bee" by 2004 winner Andrew Wojtanik.

Phipps was hooked on geography from that moment on.

"I couldn't put it down for weeks," the sixth-grader said.

Phipps is one of the 54 finalists who will compete in the 2014 National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., on May 19 and 20. He won the state competition on April 4 at Central Connecticut State University.

Darien has not produced a National Geographic Bee winner since the competition's inception in 1989. The competition is open for all students from fourth to eighth grade. Phipps is the fourth Darien student to win the state Geography Bee.

Barbara Ivey, who works in the Middlesex Middle School library and coaches the contestants, said she has been lucky to guide students she refers to as "sponges." Only twice in 26 years did Darien not have a student place in the top 100 contestants in the state.

Almost every day after school, Phipps works with Ivey in preparation for the contests. Whenever he gets an answer wrong, he writes it down in a black-and-white composition notebook, which is starting to show signs of wear.

The two pour over maps and atlases, study old bee questions and immerse themselves in a lot of "obscure questions about obscure places," Ivey said.

"These kids have worked really, really hard to get where they are," Ivey said.

Phipps said the preparation for the bee has helped him earn higher grades in his social studies class.

In order to progress to the national contest, Phipps worked his way through the levels of competition, first in the classroom round and eventually to the 2014 Connecticut State Geography Bee against the top 100 students in the state on April 4.

Phipps' mother, Carmen, recalls that he has been actively interested in geography since he was 3 and remembers one trip to the Darien Library in particular when he was 4. He was carrying a large stack of books about different countries, but was told he would have to limit the number of books he took out of the library.

Her son has studied Chinese since he was in kindergarten and plays the flute and stringed instruments in the band and orchestra. He also plays the mandolin and the dizi, a Chinese flute.

Phipps' prize for winning the state bee garnered him and Ivey an all-expense paid trip to Washington as well as $100 for Phipps.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583;@Meg_DarienNews