07/09/2012 12:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2012

Exploring "The World and All That's in It"

Events of June 23, 2012

While on the way home from an Independence Day celebration this week, I mentioned offhandedly to one of my friends that I'd gotten my first pair of binoculars "from my godmother Athena."

"Wait, you have a godmother named Athena?" One of my friends asked, impressed by the relatively unusual but cool-sounding name.

While my mother's family is, indeed, from Greece, I must regrettably admit that I cannot claim the Olympian goddess as a relative. (Even though that would be awesome.) My godmother is decidedly mortal, but, like her divine namesake, she is a great promoter of knowledge.

I feel that every child should be lucky enough to have relatives who support and encourage their interest in the world around them. When I yammered on and on about astronomy during one visit my godmother made to our house, she sent me a book about the mythology of the constellations and my first pair of serious binoculars. I still own those good old 12x24s, and while their center axis joint has become a bit worn-out, making it hard to keep them folded up, I still keep them amongst my observing equipment.

But the second-greatest gift my godmother gave me was only because of a happy accident. She was either moving or simply cleaning up her house, I don't remember which, but at any rate she, like many people, had amassed a collection of National Geographic back issues in her attic and needed to get rid of them. She knew that I was a voracious reader who was interested in traveling around the world, so she mailed us the magazines in a large box.

When the package arrived, my mother helped me unload the large yellow stack and find a place for it on one of my bookshelves. (Vertically, and with the spines pointed out, of course.) I'd read the National Geographic Society's magazine for children, World (now called National Geographic Kids), for several years, but the grown-up version was even more in-depth, and came with pull-out maps, which I eagerly pored over and briefly hung on my walls before I realized that direct sunlight would fade them.

I gushed to my godmother on the phone in typical excitable 10-year-old fashion about her gift. (I think the articles I most enjoyed were about the recovery of the ecosystem around Mount Saint Helens 20 years after the 1980 eruption, the discovery of the Civil War submarine CSS Hunley, and the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest with an article about Sir Edmund Hillary that instantly made him one of my heroes -- regrettably, one I would never have the chance to meet before his death in 2008.) And that was what led to her greatest physical gift to me -- a subscription of my own.

I still have that pile of back issues on my bookshelf, although it's now mostly issues I've received myself in the nine years since I got my own subscription. I know that's nothing compared to people who've been getting the magazine for decades and have back issues going back to the days of black-and-white photography, but it's still something I'm proud of.

I won't claim I had no interest in geography before I started reading National Geographic, that's simply not true. But I wasn't aware of all of the things that "geography" could encompass, dealing not just with maps, but with the places they represented, the natural processes that happened there, and the scientific investigations that were the reason we knew what we knew about them. In short, as a program for a lecture sponsored for the society summarized it, geography was "the study of the world and all that's in it!"

And in late November of 2004, I had the opportunity to travel to the National Geographic Society headquarters here in D.C. and hear a lecture given by another of my heroes, underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard. That was a magical day from start to finish, especially meeting Dr. Ballard in person and getting him to sign my copy of Return to Titanic.

It wasn't until last summer that I was able to return to the NGS headquarters after that, and then only for a few minutes, as I'd unfortunately arrived right before closing time. (To my further disappointment, while the traveling Race to the End of the Earth exhibition that I'd seen previously at the American Museum of Natural History had come to the NGS museum, the adorable stuffed toy huskies that I'd so admired in New York had not.)

A few weeks ago, however, I arranged to spend a whole Saturday at the museum. I obtained a ticket at the window and headed inside. Although the exhibits had changed, the interior of the building was still as it had been in 2004 -- the white marble walls, the golden NGS seal in the floor, the photograph overlays on the elevator doors. Having the time to peruse the museum at my leisure, it really did feel like falling into the magazine, seeing the photographs and maps transformed into real artifacts and models in front of my face. I wandered up and down the central corridor, looking at the topographic model of the Grand Canyon that hung from the ceiling. (And, I would like to note, being careful not to bump into anyone.)

In the "Samurai: The Warrior Transformed" exhibition, I looked at real samurai armor and swords and attempted to play a Japanese stringed instrument -- although I must admit, I wasn't very good. I also got to see some very cool photographs of life in Japan at the end of the 19th century taken by Eliza R. Scidmore, the woman responsible for Washington's Japanese cherry trees.

Of course, the coolest exhibit for me was "Titanic: 100 Year Obsession". While I've developed other interests since then, I still felt like my 11-year-old self wandering among the large photographs of the wreck site, working out which I'd seen before, which I hadn't seen, and which I'd forgotten. (I took so many photographs that my camera's batteries died. Fortunately, there's a convenience store a few blocks from the museum.)

I've been lucky enough to visit a lot of cool places in the past few years and meet a lot of interesting people, and I'm proud to say that I'm one year into my Archeology major. I'm not an explorer yet, and I would never try to pretend to be, but I'm certainly closer than I was as a ten-year-old first picking up those back issues. And for the remainder of my internship, I'm lucky enough to have the National Geographic Society headquarters just two Metro stops away. Before I left the museum, I made sure to check the calendar of upcoming events and asked about how I could make an appointment to use the Society library. (Oh yes, they have a library... but that's another story...)