PALM HARBOR — Fourteen hundred cheering children jammed the entrance to Palm Harbor Middle School on Friday, waving signs: "Aadith Moorthy You Rock," and "Congrats Aadith, You Go, Boy."
Many of the younger kids didn't know who Aadith Moorthy was, except that he was an eighth-grader returning to a hero's welcome after winning the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C.
He was their first national champion of anything. Aadith Moorthy put Palm Harbor Middle School, literally, on the map.
But their hero was modest and unassuming. He seemed mystified by all the fuss. He was trying to get to class.
As he swept by, eighth-grader Zaria Teal said she knew him, sort of.
"He's really dedicated," she said. She paused. "He's good at social studies."
Away he went with his fans. Zaria and her girlfriends watched him go.
Well, does his newfound fame make him datable?
Zaria assumed the pose of a middle school heartbreaker.
"I'm sure," she said tragically, "there's someone out there for Aadith."
• • •
Sometimes, it seems like Aadith Moorthy comes from another planet. At school he's all business.
When he came back a champion on Friday, he was mostly worried about a vocabulary test.
He greets each teacher with "Good morning. How are you?" Said history teacher Michelle Anderson, "He sees teachers as being people."
His parents are computer engineers. They're from southern India. He's their one child. They knew he was special as a toddler. When he was 4, his IQ measured 140. They put him right into a Montessori program.
Palm Harbor Middle has lots of bright children.
"But he is the only child I've known in seven years," Anderson said, "who was willing to put in the time required to win a national championship at this early an age."
• • •
Aadith made that commitment after losing in the state finals of the National Geographic Bee in 2009.
Many kids between fourth and eighth grade attempt the Bee several times, but Aadith couldn't. Coming into eighth grade, he was left with just one year of eligibility. This year would be all or nothing.
Aadith's parents, Subramaniam and Suguna Satyamoorthy, hired a professional geography bee coach. They found one actually existed in Fort Myers.
The coach, Kumar Nandur, said he has been preparing contestants for 10 years.
He tested Aadith's seriousness. "I gave him a week to read a book. He called me back in two days and said, 'I'm done.' "
Nandur ordered Aadith to learn 20 new facts a day. He e-mailed lists. Aadith brought them to Anderson, his history teacher, who is the school's Bee sponsor.
She made copies for all his teachers. They drilled him on geography in every class.
For the final two weeks, Nandur upped the daily list of new facts to 50. Aadith looked for ways to organize the masses of data pouring into his brain.
"I connected dots," he said. "That's how I learned."
For example, he learned that Valencia was a city in Spain. Then he learned that Valencia was also a city in Venezuela. Good to know.
That turned out to be an actual National Geographic Bee question.
He learned that Valencia is also an orange. It so happened another Bee question was where Valencia oranges come from.
Thanks to connecting dots, Aadith instantly knew the answer: Spain.
• • •
A year of struggle later, he made it to the finals in Washington this week and tripped on the very first question.
Aadith was given three cities with names that started with K — Kiev (Ukraine), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Kinshasa (Congo). Which of them had 7.5 million people? He had 15 seconds to answer.
He guessed Kuala Lumpur.
The answer was Kinshasa.
He was allowed one mistake, so he stayed alive.
But no one who answered the first question incorrectly had ever won the championship.
Nandur had coached Aadith for such a catastrophe. "I told him, 'Just treat each question like a separate entity.' "
Aadith got the next question right. And the next. His confidence grew with each round.
Aadith became Nandur's first national champion.
• • •
Aadith came home with a $25,000 scholarship. He wants to spend it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I want to be a physicist like Stephen Hawking. I want to study space geography."
He's also going to spend this summer in India studying his other passion — Carnatic music, the classical music of southern India.
But on Friday morning, he fretted that he first had to pass Miss Brown's vocabulary test.
He had flown home at 3 in the morning and was up at 7 doing TV interviews. He studied his vocabulary words on the ride to school.
Miss Brown took mercy. She let Aadith slide on the test.
Okay, Dad said, then he would let his hard-working son slide, too.
"We're going to sleep in on Saturday," he promised.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.