Facing the biggest test of his young life, William "Will" Brannon chose not to study. It paid off, handsomely.
On March 26, Brannon, 13, of Herndon, an eighth grader at Herndon Middle School, became the winner of the first ever Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge. With the victory, Brannon won a $25,000 scholarship beating out 52 other state and area champions at the event in Williamsburg last week.
"I figured studying would just make me forget all the other words that I already knew," said Brannon. "Besides I can’t very well study the whole English language in two days."
Instead, Brannon, an avid reader, relied on his knack for remembering words and definitions. It worked.
Brannon was one of more than 800,000 school age children who participated in the nationwide vocabulary contest. Launched this fall with a series of contests at the school level, the word power competition held state championships in January. The 53 winning contestants participated in the opening round of the final competition on March 25. On March 26, the field was narrowed to 10 contestants.
"After the final 10 were selected, I was pretty confident that I would do OK," Brannon said.
As the competition progressed, Brannon’s mom, Kathy, was also increasingly confident, and nervous. Brannon says he likes to read science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction books. "I knew he’d have a chance," said Kathy Brannon. "He loves to read so much and he has such a huge vocabulary. He is just an exceptional kid. By the age of two, he had already memorized the keyboard on a typewriter. There is something special with Will."
His teachers saw it, too. "From the very start of the year, it was evident that Will had a knowledge of events, vocabulary that was above average," said Jeannine Cotner, his civics teacher. "The fact that he will benefit from something he did solely for pleasure — reading — is even more special."
Cotner and Brannon's mother accompanied the champion to Williamsburg, and both women found it more nerve wracking in the audience than on stage. "After seeing Will's success at the state competition, when he had not studied at all, I was very optimistic that he would make the top 10," said Cotner. "I did not want to focus on him making the top three for fear that I would somehow jinx it."
<b>WHEN THE COMPETITION</b> was narrowed down to two final contestants, Brannon and Gordon Bourjaily, an eighth grade student from Coraville, Iowa, each boy was given five different words. With the national title on the line, Bourjaily answered three correctly. Brannon did him one better, answering four of the five multiple-choice questions correctly.
Tied at three a piece, Brannon won the competition when he knew that "vexillology" refers to the study of flags.
A little luck never hurt either. "I didn’t know what it meant," Brannon admitted. "It was a wild guess."
Guess or not, the check is in the proverbial mail. Reader’s Digest will be sending a promissory note to Brannon and his family this week. While he will never see the money, the magazine giant will send $25,000 to whichever college the 13 year old attends. "It’s very exciting," said Brannon, who has his sights set on an Ivy League school after he graduates from Herndon High in 2007.
His mom, Kathy, is even more excited about the cash award. "Considering the Ivy League schools that he is talking about," she said, "of course, we can always use the money."
Kathy isn't the only one excited about her son's victory. Cotner, his teacher, said there are lots of Herndon Middle School students, many who did not know this shy modest student, approaching Brannon and offering their congratulations. The entire school is very excited, she said.
"I was thrilled when Will actually won," Cotner said. "Again, he did not study at all. Many of the other contestants carried books around studying for hours."
NBC will air the first annual Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge, hosted by the Today Show's weatherman, Al Roker, during the weekend of May 24.