Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > The Uber-Geographer

The Uber-Geographer

Mr. Apetz asked, “What is the capital of Upper Volta?”

And Peg answered, “Ouagadougou, of course.” She was kind of like Hermione, only fun-loving as well.

The Republic of Upper Volta has since changed its name to Burkina Faso. But it was called Upper Volta, after its main river, when I was in eighth grade. We were in an elective class titled World Boundaries, taught by an amazing guy, Mr. Apetz.

In just one semester, he took our 14 year-old inclination to learn geography and turned it into a passion. Every day, under Mr. Apetz’ guiding hand, we all laughed and shouted and scribbled and absorbed details like eager, happy sponges. Looking back, I see that the pace was astonishing. We didn’t realize it though because we had so much fun.

And here’s the result. Shortly after Christmas, we took our final exam in three 50-minute class periods. Each day, we had a blank outline map showing 1/3 of the world: Western Hemisphere, Europe & Africa and then Asia/Pacific. On each one, our task was to correctly draw-in and label: major mountain ranges, major rivers, national boundaries, national capitals and major bodies of water, including large lakes. Mr. Apetz also gave extra credit for: noting population, major exports, form of government, head of state and undersea features, like the Marianas Trench.

By that time, after about four months, no one scored less than 85% correct. And my friend, Peg, the best of us in class, got 200%! I came in fourth with a measly 148%. Mister Apetz did not grade on a curve. Either we learned the expected stuff or we didn’t. Both Peg and I got an A+, but we all knew Peg was by far the top student.

How did he do it? With a class of 32 kids? First, he taught us how to take good notes. Then, using big wall maps of each part of the world or of a big country like China, he lectured for half an hour in a mesmerizing way that painted vivid pictures in our minds of people and places.

For example, the Sea of Azov is just some blue stuff east of the Crimean Peninsula until Mr. Apetz tells you about the Sythians and Greeks and Romans and Persians and Mongols and Turks. Then, you remember. Then, you want to remember. He often added a famous quote or two or told a related joke. I also recall that his Russian, Spanish and upper class British accents were quite good.

Here is Mr. Apetz’ geography joke about Finland:

One Finn asks another, “Are the Russians our brothers or our friends?”

The other Finn replies, “They must be our brothers, because you can choose your friends.”

Every class day, we also played the truly marvelous game of Mappy for 15 minutes. Mr. Apetz divided the class down the middle. Starting from the far left and the far right front of the room, two students would come up to stand before the big map of the world pulled down from above the blackboard. Both contestants faced the class. Then, Mr. Apetz would call out the name of something, like the Tian Shan mountains, or the Dnepr River, or Tananarive (now Antananarivo) or Bucharest or Eniwetok or Mt. Aconcogua. The first of the two kids to put their finger on that spot won a point for their side.

Within the first few days, we were all racing as fast as we could to get the most questions possible into fifteen minutes. It was great fun and exhilarating. We learned by leaps and bounds, and, some days, we laughed so hard our cheeks hurt.

If the others who took the class are like me, they’ve never forgotten what he taught us and still use it every day, trying to sort through what puts itself forward as news these days. For example, geography makes it easy to see why Obama ignores Syria and starts a war in Libya over less.

Here’s a question for you, the answer to which I learned from Mr. Apetz and have never forgotten: Name the two main rivers in Myanmar. The answer is at the end of this post, and no, one of them is not the Kwai.

We learned thousands of details in World Boundaries, but one of the general insights I remember most from Mr. Apetz is about why it’s important to know geography.

“Imagine,” he said, “that all the interactions between countries were like a game of Chess. The countries are the pieces, but geography tells you what kind of piece each one is: a Queen or a Rook or a Pawn, for example. Geography also tells you what the chessboard looks like, where each piece is and where the pieces can move.

“Try to imagine playing a game of chess if you don’t know what kind of pieces you have to move, where they are on the board or the types of moves they can make.

It’s one of the great privileges of my life to have had the chance to learn from Mr. Apetz.

So, it’s especially sad to see the monstrous shroud ignorance the ‘Education’ system has spread over the minds of young America today, and at truly astronomical expense. When High School diplomas are awarded to the functionally illiterate and innumerate, we’re a long way from where geography could help. 


Answer: the Brahmaputra and the Salween.

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