BLOOMINGTON - Central Catholic High School sophomore Matthew Feeney grinned when elementary school girls stepped away from the Madagascar hissing cockroach in his hand.
"Some people love it and want to pet it; some are deathly afraid," said Feeney, 16, of the three-inch, hard-shelled bug.
Feeney was among 115 sophomores exhibiting food, maps, and artifacts at the school's annual geography fair. Together, they told the story of 71 countries.
He's the only student to have the cockroach during the 20 years geography teacher Tony Fabrizio has led the fair.
"Every year, I learn something new," said the teacher and assistant principal.
Feeney, a junior zookeeper at Miller Park Zoo, borrowed the bug the night before the exhibit. His mother, Lisa Feeney, wasn't so keen on having it in her house.
Other students also were resourceful in finding items to illustrate their countries. Evan Ibsen and project partner Bradley Miller, both of Bloomington, stood near a 5-foot wooden giraffe from Africa, borrowed from a friend.
Ibsen's and Miller's costumes, costing a total of $20, were ordered from a Web site selling South African items. Ibsen's mom also enjoyed a shopping trip with her son to Crossroads-Global Handicrafts in Bloomington.
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Sam Bevilacqua, 15, of Bloomington, showed items from Botswana that he gathered from a family trip and from when he lived there years ago.
"I know what it looks like there, and what it feels like," he said. His father's job at Caterpillar brought the family there, he explained as he showed an album of photos.
He explained the light blue flag with black and white symbolized racial harmony in the country, founded in poverty in 1966, and now a strong regional economy because of its diamonds.
Younger students from Holy Trinity, Epiphany, and St. Mary's Catholic schools attended the fair, taking part in a treasure hunt of information about the 71 countries.
This year for the first time, 91 students from Tri-Valley schools in Downs also attended.
"One of my ex-students (Molly Harris) is now a teacher at Tri-Valley," said Fabrizio, recalling that she did a geography fair project for him. "She did a great job on it too," he said.