This Issue

Sep/Oct 2012

What Is ...?

by Andrew Ladd

Check out our interview with Andrew Ladd here!

My mother disappeared the summer before my junior year of high school--the same year I got dumped for the first time, the same year I learned to drive, and the same year I became convinced that Mr. Jennings, my new algebra teacher, was Alex Trebek, the host of the TV quiz show Jeopardy! Everyone thought he was Trebek, actually, when he walked in that first morning. Other than a mustache, which Jeopardy!-Trebek had long since lost, and a little less gray hair, they could have been twins. He even wore vintage Jeopardy!-style suits: the somber gray, the wide lapels, the pocket square. It was uncanny.

We all stared, and he gave a deep sigh. "O.K.," he said. "Let's get this out of the way: I look like Alex Trebek. It's an incredible likeness, I know--believe me--and you're going to want to joke about it because you're high-school students and you can't resist." He fixed us all with a stare that only made him look more Trebekian. "And I've got a good sense of humor, so that's O.K. as long as it doesn't disrupt class. We've got a lot to cover this year, and I won't tolerate constant interruptions. Is that understood?"

I turned and mouthed what-the-hell at Katie (my girlfriend, at that point). She only shrugged, while around the room a couple of heads began to nod, and Mr. Jennings, apparently satisfied, straightened his tie and launched into the lesson. There were still a few whispers and passed notes, and Katie and I and the rest of our friends laughed about it over lunch every day for a week, but he had enough personality of his own--starting each lesson with a Far Side cartoon that demonstrated some mathematical principle, and decorating the classroom with old Hollywood posters--that by the end of September everyone had let the matter drop.

Except for me.

Until then I'd been only an occasional Jeopardy! viewer, but soon I was watching religiously, searching for conclusive evidence that the two men were one and the same--and the more I saw, the surer I got. Jennings-Trebek had the same stentorian voice as Jeopardy!-Trebek, and the same wooden sense of humor, and he would sometimes whistle the Jeopardy! theme absent-mindedly while writing equations on the board. There were other coincidences, too: an identical tie spotted on both Trebeks, an algebra category on Jeopardy! the night before a big exam.

It didn't matter that he was quizzing us on math in Denver and simultaneously quizzing contestants on general knowledge in L.A., because Jeopardy! films weeks of episodes in just a few afternoons each month. And didn't Mr. Jennings take Fridays off? It fit! A long weekend every now and then, and he could carry on his hosting obligations without our algebra ever suffering. It was no longer a matter of whether Mr. Jennings was Trebek, I decided, but rather why Trebek was masquerading as a Denver math teacher. And I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

© 2012 by Andrew Ladd