Gears in the Skull: The Life and Times of a Teen Trivia Jock -The Toast

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Anna Cabe’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.


Which Greek is called “The Father of Geometry?”

I am seven. I had moved to a cotton town smack-dab in the clay of the Mississippi Delta, the year before and already have the seeds of Get-Me-The-Heck-Out-Of-Here within me. But I don’t know that yet. I just know that I am bored one day in my second-grade class, as I had finished my work early, as I usually did.

While my classmates diligently write in wobbly cursive, I start perusing the bookshelves. Reading as something fun to do is new to me. I had learned how words worked together later than my unnervingly sophisticated kindergarten classmates, little proto-Gossip Girls, back in Chicago, causing more than a few tears as I struggled to read the brightly-colored books that everyone else whizzed through like ponytailed wizards.

On the shelves, I find picture books teaching mathematical concepts, part of an ancient set of Magic Castle Readers. I read one then the other. Then another.

One is called How Many Ways Can You Cut a Pie? It is about a squirrel who makes a nut pie and has to cut it into equal pieces for her animal friends. I realize these were those mysterious things we had learned in class, fractions.

This is one of the first facts I consciously remember storing.

Answer: Euclid


Which French theologian influenced, among other Christian denominations, the Presbyterian Church?

I am eleven. The pit in my throat, the Get-Me-the-Heck-Out-Of-Here, has grown to a choking size. My best friend has become a cheerleader, which wouldn’t be so bad except that she thinks I want to be one, too, and has seemingly decided that, until I become one, to keep to the football field. I hide behind my books in the lunchroom, even when girls, alarmingly woman-shaped, make-upped girls, sniff at me, telling me, “Reading is bad for you. It’s bad for you!” (I flee to the courtyard afterwards to drink my words in silence.) Others tell me to stop showing off.

But the Presbyterian preacher’s wife who oversees study hall doesn’t seem to mind my boasting, my rapid-fire shooting of new facts during that lazy hour of nothing-much. 

One day, we start talking about J.K. Rowling: 

“She is a member of the Church of Scotland,” I say.

“Otherwise known as the Presbyterian Church,” she says.

A lot of our conversations go like this; a lot of my conversations with adults go like this. They ooh and ahh at how much information I can pull out — geography, books, history — and I feel warm and light inside each time I do. Never do they tell me to stop. Instead, they point at me during class and say things like “Anna Cabe got the third-highest score in English in the state on this standardized test,” while the eyes of my classmates sear into my back, and I resolutely keep my eyes to the teachers’ shining approval.

“You’re amazing,” the Presbyterian preacher’s wife tells me. “One day, I just know that you’re going to be on Jeopardy. Will you please mention me, say, ‘Hello, Mrs. ———’”

 Warmth floods my insides. “I will,” I say. As a general rule, I keep my promises, but this one sticks tightly to the back of my skull, waiting. I can’ t say the same of many things I say to people from this place and time.

Answer: John Calvin


With which animal, otherwise known as Canis lupus, is St. Francis of Assissi associated?

I am thirteen. Suburban Tennessee has become the address on my family’s mail. My jeans are exchanged for plaid skirts at my new Catholic school. My mascot switches from the green and gold Mustang to the blue and red Timberwolf. My after-school life gains a fellow, bespectacled, Middle-Earthand-Narniaobsessed friend and an activity to disrupt its book-reading, TV-watching monotony.

I take an easy — to me — test in history class one day and am asked to come to academic team try-outs. Every year, my middle school arranges a day of trivia competition for the local middle schools, Academics Day. My fingers buzz again and again. They’re initially slower than those more accustomed to the rigors of video games, but they catch easily onto the smooth plastic bump of the button, the fake wood casing. My eventual team members look befuddled, blindsided, like I was Road Runner, blue and speedy with dust kicking up behind me.

I make the team.

At the Academics Day awards ceremony, they call me up, “Little Anna Cabe,” for Most Valuable Player (Both my school’s teams make it to the finals, home-turf advantage most likely). I hold up my trophy to everyone’s cheers, and I feel so high and warm that I want to fly above the crowd and bask, saying, Yes, yes, keep clapping for me.

Answer: the wolf


Which device, invented in the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg, would help unleash the Enlightenment?

I am fourteen, a freshman, the only one who passes the absurdly difficult entrance test to make it on my high school’s Knowledge Bowl team. Everyone else is older. Sophomores, juniors, seniors. My fingers no longer buzz. I hide behind my books before practice, barely looking up when they address me. My stomach shakes; my skin is layered with a film of sweat. Even when two of the best players on the team, the twins (headed to the University of Chicago and Notre Dame the next fall), kindly note that my Tamora Pierce book was one they had read, I burrow my eyes deeper into the pages, afraid to say even a simple Hi.

When I timidly seat myself at our B-team table at my first tournament at another high school, I surprise myself by buzzing in for a few toss-ups, before we are bulldozed by our own A-team, helmed by a twin, in another round.

But that little trickle isn’t enough. I say something came up (reality: fear) before next tournament, which makes the B-team a member short, which wastes money, and which will probably cause the team to withdraw from the tournament. The coach, thin as an exposed bundle of nerves, snaps at me; the tears are barely dammed behind my eyes. 

Next year will come, though, glistening with unfolding potential, and then the next and the next.

Answer: the printing press


Parasites such as Wuchereria bancrofti, Brugia malayi, and B. timori cause obstruction in the lympathic vessels in the lower half of the body, causing disproportionate swelling, a disease named after this large pachyderm.

Everyone wants me to be on their team during Honors Biology Jeopardy when I am fifteen, a sophomore. The class devours all G.P.A.‘s (except mine and two other people’s), and we’ll take any bonus points we can get. They may whisper behind my back, talk about getting federal agents to take me out because I’m too smart, but they want me on their team.

The teacher shouts “Go!” and I start, whipping out the information on the board in seconds.

“You’re like a machine,” someone tells me, astonished.

I want to say, I have a good memory. That’s all. No gears in my skull, just ordinary brain matter. Like yours. There’s no discernible difference in mass between different brains, don’t you know? The idea that smart equals big brain isn’t true at all.

They won’t; I won’t, either.

Answer: elephantiasis


Who won the longest consecutive string of matches on Jeopardy, losing only at match number 75?

I get a phone-call to try-out for Teen!Jeopardy in Nashville after acing the (easy) online test when I am fifteen. Visions of applause, cameras, money float through my head.

My mom and I enter the elevator with another candidate. She looks me in the eye, and I look back, surprisingly. With this gesture, we prove we don’t contribute too much to the collective social awkwardness at the try-outs, enough to sink the Titanic. Robotically unaware of niceties and feelings as I am, I am at least capable of passable gregariousness among new people and am positively Vogue-worthy in my calf-high boots and tastefully sparkle-encrusted shirt.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” she says.

“What do you do?” I ask.

The conversation went something like this:

“I’m a member of the debate team,” she says, adjusting her glasses. “I also participate in Model UN and will be going to the Governor’s School for International Studies this summer.”

I answer, “I’m on my school’s newspaper staff as copy-editor. I am on the Knowledge Bowl team and also participate in WordSmith.”

When we get off the elevator, after this passive-aggressive adolescent-alpha-nerd saber-rattling, my mom jabs me in the shoulder and nods towards the departing candidate. “What a show-off,” she says. “So proud.”

Only now, I realize that we, this motley crew crammed into a Nashville hotel, were the probably the same underneath all the probing questions, the swagger, the repressed realization that most of us weren’t going to make it (I didn’t): overachieving, nerdy, most often alone with our shining plastic trophies, our wordy bundle of titles, our dry, coolly flashing facts.

Answer: Ken Jennings


Fill in the blanks in lines from this Emily Dickinson poem: I’m (a)________! Who are you? / Are you — (b)________ — too?

I write a poem one day, after someone asks me for the hundredth time, “What is this? What does it mean? Who did this? Where?” before scribbling my response down on a homework sheet. Some at least bother to look apologetic, even though the deference makes any reluctance seem harder, meaner.

The answers pop out of my mouth, YesNoTrueFalseAdulterytheHolySpiritNaCl, in a torrent; I cannot stop. It might be pity; it might be pride; it might be me pleading, LikemeLikemeLikeme, as if the academic words pouring out of my mouth are readily translatable to the normal teenage mind.

Sometimes, I feel like a



(Put a quarter in and get a prize).

However, you don’t get candy or dolls

(But a thought, cut down to size).

There is no warmth within me when I write this in my jealously guarded poetry notebook, one of the few places I drop the metal plating around my tissued brain, my tissued heart. Sometimes, I feel like a vending machine. . .

Answer: (a) nobody (b) nobody


What is the name of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt? She was frequently depicted with a false beard to indicate her status as a ruler, not a consort.

I finally “make it” on the Knowledge Bowl team when I’m a junior and become the go-to literature person, the bonus queen, the sole female, on the A-team. Unlike the fast and furious captain (Literally he and his best friend scream “I’m going to fuck you up” at each other during practice before throwing cellphones, ties, and pens to the ground. He also invokes this during pre-match prayers: “Let them go back crying home to ——— County. . . rape, pillage. . .baby blood.”), I may not have sold my soul to gain unnatural wrist movements, but I discover a facility for obscure literature, important women, and many of the bonuses accompanying the toss-up.

I realize my importance when my teammates automatically look towards me during matches: “Who wrote this, Anna? Who is she, Anna? Anna.

Answer: Hatshepsut


Which Army general during World War II, who was forced to retreat to Australia from the Philippines due to the encroaching Japanese, vowed, “I came through and shall return?”

When I’m blinking hard at the blinding lights during my first ever TV tournament, on News Channel 3’s Knowledge Bowl, in which the wisecracking moderator manages to mess up at least one question per game, often necessitating a re-do, I remember: 

During the “Get to Know the Geeks!” section (the name is all mine; no one would dare call us that to our faces), I say, “I had a teacher who told me I was going to be on Jeopardy someday, and since this is the next best thing, I want to say, ‘Hi, Mrs. —————.’”

“Whaddya mean, ‘next best thing?’” says the moderator, grinning.

I giggle and blush warmly in response. My inside warms, too. Hi, Mrs. ————— — though, she’ll never see this, this studio seems like it’s miles and miles away from the Mississippi Delta.

Answer: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur


Who is the god of dreams in Greek mythology?

My junior year, the first time the A-team wins the News Channel 3 Knowledge Bowl championship, we celebrate at a famous local burger joint, paid for by our beaming principal. Coincidentally, it is the restaurant’s trivia night. We top off the after-championship glow by answering all the questions correctly.

John McCain.


Crystal Stewart, Miss USA 2008.

We, we are radiating to the crowd, are more awesome than you, 7,500 dollars more awesome than you. Eat it, o stupid masses.

Answer: Morpheus


Who is the goddess of victory in Greek mythology?

My senior year, the second time the A-team goes to same restaurant, we are silent. My tarnished captainship hangs heavy over my head as do the approximately 100 to 200 points that separated us from victory. My family records every match I ever participate in, but I will never ever watch this one.

Answer: Nike


Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, was the professor of what at Oxford University?

The summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I take a cruise with my family. My brother, sister, cousin and I beat a roomful of significantly older adults in a trivia competition. We win cheap plastic luggage tags that we promptly lose once we are on land again and are rarely collectively prouder.

In the midst of the back-slapping, the boasting that we, preteens, teenagers, are smarter than over-tanned grown-ups, I realize: 

Trivia is fun.

Knowing the animal hiding in the teapot at the Mad Tea-Party was a Dormouse is fun

Winning ugly knickknacks, not just piles of scholarship money and shiny trophies, is fun.

 Did I forget this after all the stress aches, the missed sleep, the expectant, smothering pressure?

That trivia is fun?

Answer: mathematics


Bucephalus and Roan Barbary were steeds. What were Balmung and Durandal?

Secretly, one of the clinchers to my enrollment at my eventual women’s liberal arts college is when I watch its 1966 College Bowl match with Princeton University on YouTube, in which my soon-to-be alma mater pulls off a stunning upset against the all-male team, who oozed condescension (Princeton would become co-ed three years later, in 1969).

I deliberately choose this school knowing it no longer has a competitive trivia team; my desire to repeat the nail-biting, insomnia-inducing rollercoaster of tournaments had faded by my senior year of high school and was replaced with an urge for something more artistic, less cut and dry. Less mechanical.

Somehow, I feel that the victory of “a bunch of girls” (so-called by Princeton’s The Nassau Herald that year) means something, that maybe I won’t be called out for having gears in my skull, that maybe they’ll see the squishy brain matter, the fleshy heart fibers, that maybe I won’t be a —


Answer: swords


How is a basilisk born, according to the Harry Potter books?

My college plans don’t include being my class’s trivia chair for my college’s annual fall class competition week, as I am resolutely set on being another painted face in the crowd, celebrating first-year initiation into the college and hell, getting water-blasted by near-naked, drunk upperclasswomen.

To my bemusement, I become chair. Three years in a row.

“It’s a part of you,” My-Best-Friend-From-High-School, she of the spectacles and C.S.-Lewis-and-J.R.R.-Tolkien-love, tells me on the phone. She means trivia.

Trivia Day, a grueling series of seriously academic and useless pop culture questions, is only one of many class competitions during the week, but the teams usually mean business. My class eventually wins my junior year, and we celebrate noisily, Nordicly, and yellow-ly (in reference to our class mascot and color) over social media and the rest of the week.

Before then, though, we only take third place the previous two years.

The first-years’ loss is understandable; we’re eighteen, nineteen, to the seniors’ twenty-one or twenty-two; and seniors usually win. Our second year, my class maintains to this day, was a win robbed due to some bizarre technicality and my college’s widespread, noted, and passionate love for Harry Potter, which made the final round, a list of increasingly obscure questions about the books and films, very close indeed.

Our team takes comfort in a few things that year, mainly our clear trivia superiority. Now, though, all I remember are the drowning screams of the cheer section, a wide swath of undulating yellow. The spirit of our class trumped our actual position on the podium stand, in my eyes, anyway.

Answer: A chicken egg is hatched under a toad.


What is Anna Cabe?

I take a personality test, Strengthsquest, for a leadership seminar. I sniff at it, having obsessively taken many personality profiles before and knowing already that these tests tend to be scientifically questionable (A test group once took a personality test and were given the resulting profiles. They were asked about the accuracy of their results and having deemed all of theirs extremely accurate, learned they had all been given the same one). Yet, I’m still somewhat spooked by how dead-on all of them are.






What the hell is Input?

You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information—words, facts, books, and quotations—or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you.


We are asked: “When have your talents threatened others?”

I admit out loud to everyone in the room — some of whom I didn’t even know: “So, Learner, Intellection, and Input meant that I am good at trivia and memorizing things and got good grades in elementary school, and people would get very competitive around me.”

“So it must have been hard for you.”

“Yeah,” I say, “But I was good at school and trivia, and that was okay.”

Later, I wonder if I was lying, painting over me alone at the lunch table, me huddling in a corner with menstrual cramps before a match hoping the ibuprofen will kick in so I wouldn’t get distracted during crucial toss-ups, me trying to connect to people obscured and muted by a blurry glass wall until we couldn’t understand each other.

I was a collector of facts — am. Yet, collecting doesn’t just mean the gears turn in my skull, that I am a machine. I collect facts because they, dry, coolly flashing facts, turn warm in my head. Warm in my chest. Wriggling. Alive.

Answer: Doesn’t that make me human?

Anna Cabe has been published in Mangrove, The Font, and Pink Pangea, among others. Hailing from Memphis, she currently lives, teaches, writes, and sings a lot of karaoke in Indonesia. You can follow her adventures at her website, Sojourner in Sumatra.

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