St. B’s eighth graders embark on a cartographic journey that begins in late winter and extends into the spring. Each eighth grade student memorizes and draws a map of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the countries of the Caucasus, on a desk-size pieces of paper that are printed only with lines of latitude and longitude.
They begin by drawing drafts of their maps on oversized “blanks” that are produced by a press in Queens. Students start by drawing the land mass, which means drawing all of the oceans and seas, from Persian Gulf to mid-Atlantic. Country borders follow, and then capitals. Finally, rivers and a few mountain ranges finish things off, plus a compass rose and (optional) any non-capital cities, sea-serpents, or battlegrounds that the boys fancy.
The key is repetitive practice over these five weeks. “Draw, draw, draw!” their humorless martinet teacher barks. And draw they do. Finally, one bright Monday morning, they are given a suitable-for-framing version of the same grid (on heavier, much nicer paper), they close their books, and they draw it all from memory, in four periods. The standard for grading is right size and in the right place. Shape is nice but not wholly important; relationships between countries (do they border the right other countries?) is.
The annual exercise was vastly improved this year by help from a returning graduate, Thomas Mowen ’15, whose coaching inspired the boys to a level of excellence never before seen, and probably never to be seen again. Thomas, on loan from boarding school, had earned an extremely high grade in his own eighth grade year and his knowledge proved to be little decayed. His gigantic stature (he is 6’5”) and kind demeanor (nicest on earth) seemed to play a part in the inspiration as well.