Welcome everyone! For this blog entry, I decided to go back into my computer past a good ways--and drag you with me, kicking and screaming.
After having my interest in CRPG's re-ignited by the excellent discussions on Armchair Arcade, I started rummaging around in my memory-banks for the names of the old games that I used to play in study-hall. Yes, I'm going far back into the past; the early-to-mid-1980's to be "fuzzily precise". There were a number of games (mostly pirated) that I and my classmates played, but only two could be classified as CRPGs. And of those two, only one has taken on near-legendary status in my memory. And so with a blast of trumpeted fanfare, I give you!...
*...a tumbleweed blows by...*
Nope, nothing. I couldn't remember the name of the dumb thing. Dangit.
However, with some judicious Google-Fu, I was at last able to locate one of my "Green Phosphor Favorites". (Actually, that's not a half-bad title idea for another article. Hmmm...) The amazing CRPG in question for this Retro-Review?
Super Quest, for the Apple][ series of computers!
Yeah, I know--stunning creativity in that title, isn't there? Anyway, a few years ago I had fiddled around with emulators for a bunch of the old 8-bit systems. This effort included building and installing an emulator for the Apple][ line. Although I never owned one myself, I was intimately familiar with the machines--they were the ones which populated my high school's "Computer Lab". (I'm being exceedingly kind here--calling it a "Lab" is a big stretch. It was really an old, dusty, hastily-converted janitorial storage room. At one end sat a humongous, ancient, very wheezy air-handler for that part of the building. Even with the little separator wall and door they built later, that thing was LOUD. Which was convenient, as the constant Whoosh! of air helped mask the beeps and boops of the computer games we weren't really supposed to be playing.) Anyway, after some initial futzing around with the LinApple2 emulator, and playing a bit of Aztec, I hadn't really touched the thing.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. After finding Super Quest, I just had to try the game again--who cared if it was nearly midnight?!? What a rush! Merely booting up the game and seeing the title-screen sent an unexpectedly strong wave of nostalgia crashing through me. I found myself transported back to that loud, echo-laden room in junior high school, where I spent hour after hour staring at fuzzy green-phosphor monitors. With my mind's eye suitably dazzled, it took little effort to recall my earlier self in sharp detail; how I felt (mostly insecure and nerdy), what I thought about (computers and arcades and girls, in that order), and what I wanted most out of life (an Apple][, a TRS-80, a Commodore 64, my own Defender arcade game... and a hot, frisky girlfriend. Who liked Defender. Again, in that order.) Hey, I've always subscribed to the view, "If you're gonna dream, DREAM BIG."
For those who care to try Super Quest for yourself, the game is available in two forms. You can download the DSK disk-image file for any of the Apple][ emulator packages, or play it in your web browser! Thanks go to Bill Loguidice for providing an excellent summary article covering the major systems which can be played in a browser now.
Bill Loguidice's In-Browser Emulation Article
SuperQuest can be played online at:
I personally have not tried playing it in a browser yet (I run Linux, so browser-plugins can sometimes be a pain), hence everything I write here is specific to "direct" emulation. I am playing it via the "LinApple2" emulator package. There are several accurate emulation equivalents for Macintosh and Windows machines. The game's ".DSK" disk-image can be downloaded in a ZIP file from that same Virtual Apple web-page.
A Few Notes on Legalities and Emulation:
Anyhow, back to my Retro-Review...
Super Quest was most precious to me personally. (*Gollum!* :-) I valued it far above most of the other (mostly pirated) games I played during study-hall periods. The reason for that is quite easy to explain. At that time, I was very much into playing the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons RPG with some close friends/classmates. Sadly, because my family lived "out in the sticks", it wasn't very often that I would get an opportunity to play; perhaps once a month during the school year. So for me, Super Quest became a way to fire up my imagination; to explore all the exciting aspects of the Role-Playing Game on almost a daily basis. In short, I could "get my escapist, adolescent-power-trip D&D fix," avoiding the frustration I felt at not being able to play campaigns more often with my group of friends.
That isn't to say that I believed the game to be "perfect" or "wonderful" or even "very good". Even my "Rose-colored Helm of Nostalgia +7" can't obliterate my memories of sometimes being absolutely enraged by the game. There were (and still are) some serious limitations to it. Some points irritated me as a gamer; others specifically aggravated me as a then-budding programmer.
To begin with, the version I played in the early-to-mid-1980's was slightly different than the version available now. It was also significantly buggier. One of my greatest frustrations was playing screen after screen of the game, racking up treasure, vanquishing monsters, only to have the game crash horribly while I was making a run for the dungeon exit. As the game is written in Motorola-6502 assembly language, and having no assembler program nor even good references for the Apple]['s built-in debugger, hacking a home-brew fix was not possible. All you could do was seethe with rage, reboot the machine, and start another character. (The game usually ate the character disk-file when it crashed.)
What about the game proper? What is that like? How does it feel and play?
Super Quest is purely a hack 'N slash CRPG of the "dungeon crawler" variety. It offers a play style very similar to classic UNIX workstation ASCII-based games like Rogue, Moria, NetHack, Angband, and so forth. It provided what became a "standard feature set" for these games:
To give you an idea of how the game looks, here are some screenshots taken in-game, while adventuring:
If you look closely at the screen captures, you'll notice that the dungeon "rooms" are actually numbered, which is a peculiar feature to offer in a graphical CRPG. It is not uncommon to find that feature in fully text-based adventure games of the period--those quite often came with manuals and maps and booklets with "Room Descriptions" in the box. Those additional physical materials acted as a direct supplement to the text-adventure gameplay.
In this case, I believe the room numbering is meant as an aid to manually mapping out the dungeon, as the room numbers do not change, nor do the room exit configurations. (Moria, Rogue, NetHack, and the rest all fully randomize each dungeon level, every single time you enter them. There's no point in creating a map.)
That the author included this feature in the game indicates two things to me:
As Super Quest offers no pause feature, runs in "real time", and as the game spawns random monster encounters at a truly staggering rate, there is simply no way for a single player to hand-map the dungeon as they explore. I believe this indicates the game was meant to be "pair played"--indeed, we often paired up like this in those old study-hall gaming sessions.
Typical of the CRPG form, Super Quest really begins with character creation. When building a new character, you type in a name, then pick one of the four available races. "Stats Management" is minimal to non-existant here, as you get a semi-random range of "Strength" scores based on which race you pick. And... well, that's about it. Your Strength/Health degrades as you take damage in the game, just as you would expect. Oddly though, this Strength/Helath is shown as a percentage on-screen, rather than an absolute number or ratio. Here's an example of my test character and an explanation of the available character races:
With that done, the game next lets you examine the "Hall of Heroes" if you so choose. This is merely a suitably pretentious, CRPG-ish name for a High-Score Table, with the names of past heroes, both currently living (saved to disk) and deceased. (The game is of the "Perma-Death" variety. One life, that's it. No chance for resurrections or reverting to the last save-point. It's very much a Hardcore, Old-school Game.)
From a historical perspective, one fascinating point worth noting here is the inclusion of a weird little feature on that High-Score Table. I believe it is wholly unique to this game, among ALL the games for ALL the early 8-bit computer/gaming platforms. (If anyone has information to the contrary, please leave a comment below.)
To the right of the character's name (in my case "Derpster"), there is a 3-letter set of initials (I picked "BUB" to amuse myself.) An overly elaborate, and frankly dumb explanation for this is given in the game's "Information" screens; some babbling silliness about, "..nobles who sponsor heroes view the quest for the MEGA-CROWN as an opportunity for competition..."
Essentially it boils down to this--they are meant to be your own initials there. The point being that anyone who plays the game, who saves their character (or their character dies) can still "prove" which character is which, and who scored more points. The feature is there purely for bragging-rights. (Offering it, when you have a longer 'character name' available for bragging, always felt weird to me though.)
Why is this in any way significant? Two main reasons; both of which provide a subtle but powerful clue to the history, the sociology, and the cultural perceptions of the time period in which Super Quest was created.
This point also demonstrates how nascent and un-formed the "home computer industry" was at that time. No one knew what customer expectations were. No one really knew precisely WHO the customer even was. So the author of the game, knowingly or not, included a key "cultural reference" here, in an attempt to make the game "more accessible" to players.
Next up, you are plonked into the "Bazaar" (general store) interface. All fresh characters come pre-equipped with a mix of "quarrels", both magical and muggle-style. You get some Health Potions. You are also given a goodly helping of "Tana Powder"; the wonderful, magical, "Insta-Kill" stuff you'll need for fending off certain undead beasties. The Bazaar is your opportunity to stock up on any additional things you think you might need. (HINT: Buy as many "Magic quarrels" and "Tana powders" as you can.) Worthy of note is the "price hagglng" system built into the game. You pick an item, pick how many to purchase, and then make an offer. The game will usually make a counter-offer, and allow you to continue haggling, or if it likes your price, it will accept and sell you the item(s) at the agreed-upon price.
This option isn't particularly well done, as there doesn't seem to be a "Charisma" score or other character stat which affects haggling ability. Other games based off D&D used this to much better effect. But again, this game appeared so early in the CRPG development history, the feature merits mention if only because it was a novel concept at that time.
Playing Super Quest is not big on plot. Most folks, particularly anyone who hasn't played and loved the insanely hard "Old School" CRPGs and arcade-games, would certainly find that the game gets repetitive quickly. The one factor which maintains "interest" is actually the pure, adrenaline-soaked, twitch-key frenzy of the gameplay. You are constantly worrying about existing monsters, spawns of random monsters, trying to figure out what your health and inventory status are, WHERE the heck you are in the dungeon, and balance all of that with the often incomplete mental map of the dungeon rooms you'll have to traverse to get your character out intact. If this CRPG were turn-based (a hack which we often longed for in those bygone days...) it would honestly be much less fun to play.
Really, that's about it. You build your character, find loot, whack monsters, collect "Dragon's Ears" as a partial quest-fulfillment, and ultimately win the game by finding the MEGA-CROWN! (Maybe.)
Frankly, even though I loved this thing in 1984, Super Quest can at best be described as "Pretty Damn Rough". And I mean ROUGH, in every sense of the word, and in every area--and that's being generous. It is rough-looking. It is rough sounding; limited to various "zzzoooops!" and "boops!" and so on. It is extremely rough to play. Like many of the old-school CRPGs, the game isn't merely content with being, "not so user-friendly". It actively and aggressively and unapologetically goes for your throat, screaming "I'M USER-HOSTILE! BOW DOWN BEFORE ME! I'LL BITE YOUR LEGS OFF!"
As the prior screenshots have shown, the game is pretty mediocre graphically, even when compared only to games produced at that time. This was not as big a problem then as it would be today, but honestly it was a very prominent detractor. Most of my classmates were put off by the meager ASCII graphics. The insane difficulty was probably the last-straw; nearly all of them lost interest in the game very quickly. I chalk it up to "meager imaginations" moreso than the "meager graphics". I'm not being mean when I state this; it's just that I doubt that many (or even any) of them had the powerful imagination it takes to envision the gameworld. Most of them hated the Zork text adventure games as well, which just adds support to my argument.
Again though, I'm perhaps being overly generous. Despite the MONTHS of time I poured into this misshapen thing in junior high-school, it was very hard to play, even by the vicious, rough, and oh-so-common "Perma-Death" standards of games produced during that era. This extreme difficulty stems from multiple factors in the game's design.
Yet despite these issues and difficulties, I feel Super Quest is worthy of remembrance. It is possibly unique, in several ways. As pointed out above, it had the rather unusual High-Score hybrid feature. It may also be the very first example of a videogame which utilized the 'WASD' direction-of-travel key configuration. The game technically uses a slight variation:
As you can see, it _actually_ specifies 'W-A-D-X' for movement direction of the character. The 'S' key isn't listed, but it actually DOES function in-game as a "STOP" command, making your character halt. This is a much-needed feature. Otherwise you continue moving in the last direction you pressed, whether or not you continue to hold down the key. This is problematic sometimes, as it will keep you moving towards monsters and closing the gap at an alarming rate. It's far better to pick them off from a distance than to try a brute-force melee attack.
Yet even counting this as "an innovation", I have to put in a caveat. There are some control/movement oddities of this game which help make gameplay frenetic (and often frustrating):
These peculiarities affect your game-play tactics tremendously. You very much want to enter rooms from the left- or right-side of the screen, as you get a movement advantage should you have to flee. You ALWAYS want to issue a STOP command upon entering a room, to give you at least a few fleeting moments to assess any danger. You would be wise to always keep corners and '+' treasure chests between you and enemies as much as possible. Everything in the dungeon is geared around "buying time" to think and hopefully act, before the denizens of the maze grind you up and spit out your well-gnawed corpse.
Pretty harsh description, I know. But like I said earlier, the Super Quest is ROUGH. Even something normally as simple as a title-screen is, in this instance, a bit of a train-wreck too. Here's how the game opens, after 'rebooting' the emulator with the game's DSK image selected:
Notice anything odd? Yeah, for some reason, the credit for "James Carmody", and the section title of "Original Game Idea" is blanked. I don't know whether this is intentional, or merely some kind of display bug (I've not had the patience to dig into the Assembly code to find out.)
EDIT: Thanks go to 'Hammer' for pointing out a boo-boo here.... that name is "John Carmody". #@%*ing typos...
As you can see from the screenshots, the rest of the title screen isn't the most obviously laid-out thing either. Which is odd in a way, since the introduction/back-story screens go on. And on. And ON. There are TEN of them, in point of fact. So you'd think with that much devotion to text, the author could have cleaned up the title-screen layout. Or scrolled it. Or something.
I didn't remember any of this clunky garbage from my misspent youth, and my curiosity was piqued. Since I love tangents, I decided to head off on one and investigate the game credits more thoroughly. Despite the confusing muddled layout of the Credits Screen, a little bit more Google-Fu cleared up parts of the mystery.
Um, yeah. That face you're making right now? Same as mine when I read through that mess. And there are 8 more screens of it...
My initial suspicion upon re-playing the game was that the narrative might have been badly translated out of another language, perhaps by a non-native English speaker. It turns out that assumption was wholly incorrect--what we have here is just a terrific example of some really dreadful writing. There is a more coherent summation of the introductory story available on the Web, should you care to read further:
So my confusion was cleared up--I think. I'm still not too sure about the bizarre storyline presented in the game's "Introduction". I've read it four or five times now, and I still feel as though I'll need to smoke some weird little mushrooms for it to make sense.
Before we close, a good question to ask me is, "Why on Earth did you like this game?" The truth is, I didn't like this game. I had a deep, intense, LOVE/HATE relationship with this game.
Looking back on it with sharp hindsight, I can honestly say that even my list of "Hate It Because" items proved useful. Those irritations stuck with me, through the decades. Thanks to the lessons learned playing Super Quest, I always made sure to put more user-friendly features into not just the arcade ripoff games I wrote, but all the other types of software I was working on; the utility programs and bitmap converters/exporters and data-gathering daemons. Further, the game DID ignite and fuel my imagination. It helped foster my desire to create similar worlds myself. As such it has served as one of the key inspirations for me, egging me on in my lifelong pursuit of programming.
Although it practically defined the word "ROUGH"; I shall always have fond memories of this game. And thanks to the wonderful efforts of emulation coders, I'll even be able fire it up every now and again when I feel the urge. Which probably won't be often.
Interesting article! Very well done! It's good to see interactive fiction (also known as text adventure games) get more of the attention it deserves.
In the same vein, there's a modern day interactive fiction publisher releasing new works of commercial interactive fiction that I think people
should know about. This interactive fiction publisher is Malinche Entertainment. Their website is http://www.malinche.net and they've got a
lot to offer anyone interested in interactive fiction/text adventure games.
There's way too much here for me to comment on point by point (which I'm sure will be a relief to you!), but I had to chime in on some of the more minor points of the article:
1) AZTEC!!! For some reason, this game is rarely spoken of in "classic gaming" conversations, but we spent many an hour in my high school computer club playing this great game! The controls were excessively complex, but it was still a fun game. Kudos for mentioning it and posting a screen cap!
2) You had a high school computer club where you played games! So did I, and I've spoken about those experiences here before, to the amazement of some of the AA members. :-) Fun, if not necessarily scholastic, times!
3) You posted this:
Thanks to the lessons learned playing Super Quest, I always made sure to put more user-friendly features into not just the arcade ripoff games I wrote, but all the other types of software I was working on; the utility programs and bitmap converters/exporters and data-gathering daemons.
Do you still have any surviving copies of the software (particularly the GAMES) you wrote? It would be very interesting to see at least some screen grabs or video, if not the outright games themselves, for us to check out!
Sorry, none of this really has anything to do with "Super Quest," which was the point of your article. But, it was very interesting to read about a game that, while not necessarily a GREAT game in the classic sense, it was a very influential game TO YOU, warts and all. Did you play this game because you had limited access to a wider selection of CRPG games (i.e. Ultima, Temple of Apshai, Wizardry, etc.), or did this one particular game just happen to catch your fancy?
I had the fortune to have lived in an area that had many D&D campaigns at the time. In fact, I was a DM of a popular campaign myself! Actual table-top D&D is so different than any CRPG in my mind that I don't even equate them as similar experiences, no matter how hard publishers have tried to replicate the table-top experience. CRPG's are "videogames," and table-top RPG's are... RPG's. It's kind of like videogames based on movies. The inspiration may be from the same source, but the experience is totally different, even if both are fun in their own right.
1) Yeah, I have "Aztec" to blame for one of the few 'C' grades I got in high-school... that stupid thing sucked up WAY too much of our time. Naturally, it was the first thing I had to try when I fired up the emulator. :-) I still remember the "Wall Fall Bug" that we used to skip ahead more quickly through the mazes. I never did manage to finish the dumb thing though.
2) No formal "club" had formed when I went through. The school-board WAS progressive enough to realize kids needed to "start learning them dang machines", but that was about it. It was used for those of us in the "advanced track" classes (school was so small it didn't even have AP classes), and for an "Intro to Computers" class in the business-track. As I was something of a teacher's pet, and the head of the Math Dept. had taught me every grade since 7th, he gave me a "permanent pass" to the room. I was kind of a fixture there my last 4 years in school--working on code through every study hall, every lunch period, and often for an hour or more after school... everybody knew me, and just let me do my thing, which was cool.
3) Well, sort of.... I have a bunch of tapes for my Vic-20 (still in the box), but sadly they seem to have mostly flaked apart. I haven't had the time or inclination to try to hand-wind through them or try to restore them. (3M used to offer a "tape restore" solution you could use to get sticky tapes apart, but that was ages and AGES ago...) To my great dismay, I have no printed listings of those programs (I had no printer), and my mother apparently threw out a box with all of my handwritten program listings in notebooks sometime in the mid 1990's.
All my Apple][ disks I gave to a friend in college, since he still had an Apple][c machine, and there seemed little point (then) to hanging onto them. I had bought a second-hand Amiga1000 and was totally enthralled with it. (DOH!)
I do have a couple partial handwritten listings, some character/bitmap sketches, and whatnot, which escaped the dustbin. I've put an autobiographical chapter/appendix into the "Philosophy of Embedded Programming Design" book that I'm nearly done writing, and I have made some scans of that material. When it looks like that is going off to the publisher, I'll go ahead and post some teaser material here. If I get a chance, I'll certainly try to recover what I can off those old tapes, and XFER it over to the PC-side.
One of the games I had at maybe 50%-60% completion was titled "Lost Labyrinth". It was directly inspired by SuperQuest, but was going to fix all the "problems", plus introduce custom graphics and so forth. (I still had never seen or played Ultima, Wizardry, or any of the others at that point.) That's the one where I have a 'partial' handwritten listing. Sadly, the code I have is only maybe the first 10% of the game. I'd always intended to get printouts of my stuff by borrowing a Commodore dot-matrix printer from a family friend, but could never arrange that.
EDIT: I just had a flood of memories about a "application disk" which I put together. I called the thing "Captain GargleBlaster's Utilities". There was a hi-res mode drawing of a cartoon character--basically a big Eyes+Nose+Moustache+Cape--that was the title/intro screen. You rebooted the Apple with the disk in the drive, and it would load the main "menu" program, that in turn would load and sub-launch one of the utilities I'd written. There was
- my very own "paint" program, written wholly in BASIC. I got fed up with the Koala-Pad/Paint thing which the school had bought, as you couldn't get pixel-perfect adjustment---the tablet sensitivity was iffy at best. It had flood-fills, pattern-fills, geometric shapes up to 8 or 9 sides, and offered the ability to "grab" part of the image and paste it. (My Lord but it was SLOW. But it worked.)
- a disk-sector utility which I was working on, meant for scanning for copy-protection junk
- a hexidecimal file loader/editor
- an incredibly crude attempt at a "Notepad" level word-processor. Yes, this was mostly in BASIC. And yes, it worked... mostly.
- 2 or 3 other ones I can't recall now...
Insofar as playing SuperQuest, yeah it was primarily my "main CRPG" because I was really poor. (Not "holes in my clothes" kind of poor, but I still got hand-me-downs from cousins and the like.) We begged/borrowed/wheedled whatever we could out of the older kids, or anybody who had a sibling at the local college who could get pirated/cracked stuff. Things like Ultima and Wizardry were just not things we could come by. I did play one friend's copy of Apshai a bit, and intended to copy the disk, but I think his parent's got weird about him bringing the game-disk to the school.
I also actually DID like the real-time twitch aspect of the game; it was exciting to play compared to the slower pace of Zork I&II. (We played those on the 4 TRS-80 machines which the school had initially bought.) I also loved the abstractness of it; being forced to use your imagination was a great thing. When I got to college, I actually lost many weeks on the UNIX workstations playing Moria, NetHack, and Rogue--even though by then I had easy access to cracked/borrowed copies of Ultima, Wizardry, and so on.
Ahhh... Nostalgia-gasm... :-)
A few comments:
1) According to the screenshot, it's John Carmody, not James Carmody.
2) I really don't think floppy disks were that expensive in 1983. I think you are drawing the wrong conclusion there.
3) I'm guessing the main reason you LOVED the game is that it was one of the only half-decent games that you had access to, and not because of anything inherent about the game...
Urgh. I thought I edited this thing carefully... dangit. You are absolutely right. It IS "John Carmody"... my brain/ grabbed the 'James' from the following line.
As for you other 2 points Hammer:
#2 - 5-1/4" floppy disks were about $5-$6 _apiece_ at that time (1982-ish) at the very few local stores which had them, depending on brand/quality. (As mentioned, I grew up in a the middle of nowhere, in a dinky little town. You paid a hefty premium for this stuff.) That is about $11 apiece or so in today's dollars... So you didn't exactly just buy whole boxes of the things on a whim. I remember the price very clearly because it took one full week of starving myself of lunches in order to afford ONE new diskette. I was amazed when the price had dropped by 1985-6 to about $1-$2 per disk, and with my part-time job I could afford to buy a box of TEN (ooooh.... aaahhh...)
#3 - You guess at least partially correctly. I would love to have played UltimaII/III or Wizardry when they first came out, but economics and availability dictated otherwise. Basically, the dirt-poor among us played whatever pirated/cracked stuff we could manage to wheedle out of the older kids who had cars and jobs and older siblings in college and whatnot. The game itself though was a cool thing to play, as it had an different mix of features compared to a lot of other ones at the time. As I pointed out, it was very much LOVE/HATE. I hated the difficulty, but I loved it too because it challenged me--taught me to work rapidly to assess threat/reward/risk/evasion possibilities very quickly.
Much like some people got attached to Daggorath despite the horrific bugs which ruined it for most of us, SuperQuest "clicked" with me on a lot of levels.
We really do appear to have a lot in common, Shawn! As you know, I grew up in the middle of nowhere, too, specifically Urania, Louisiana, and later Sikes, an even smaller village nearby. I've always wondered if the isolation helped or hindered me in the grand scheme of things; I guess I had more time to think, but certainly less opportunities to get together with friends (much less friends who shared my interests!)
One thing I'd really like to know is how good your math teachers were. When I was a kid I always envisioned myself as a computer programmer, but the math classes I had in high school got to be so bad that I lost interest in the subject. Oddly enough, the only teachers who showed any passion for their subject were the ones in English, and they were willing to help me get into college. Looking at your story, it seems you ended up doing what I had planned, so I'm wondering if you hit a string of great math teachers, or at least teachers who didn't make you hate the subject. :)
Thanks much for reading Matt!
I'm not prone to looking back and wondering "What If?" too much, but on the few occasions when I have, I can't help but realize 2 things:
(1) Growing up isolated/hindered/underpriveleged/etc. is a powerful, polarizing environmental factor in a person's mental/emotional/psyche/formative growth. Either they end up "feeling victimized" and go down that road for a long time (usually forever), or they grab the challenge and vow to overcome it, no matter how hard they have to work. This is a delicate balance, and the majority end up being "victims"--however if kids are encouraged, shown that "failing" is NOT "Failure", but a path to learning, growth, and a bigger success at the end, having to "struggle" can be the most profound motivator on Earth. There is a great quote, I think from Robert Heinlein; "Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy."
(2) My parents, family, and teachers were incredibly supportive--this was the key to not only 'surviving' #1, but using it as a springboard for the rest of my life. (We were pretty poor because of medical bills--my parents are actually both very bright--not because of lack of motivation/skill/intent.) The biggest part of this blessing was having my unceasing curiosity and advanced intellectual ability noticed and encouraged, from kindergarten onwards. Even reluctant or mediocre teachers love having a motivated, over-achieving student--so I didn't get shafted like some of the other kids.
There was another "teacher related" factor at work; I had the pure serendipitous status of being in a class full of "teacher's kids", again from kindergarten onwards. As with all small towns, "everybody knows everybody"; this was certainly true in the small school system where I grew up. As such, nearly all the teachers took an extra interest in "doing a good job" since their kid was in "Janet's math class", so they'd better make sure her daughter Suzie learns grammar and English composition properly. In that sense, I sort of "rode the wave" of this familial self-interest.
However, as your experience with crappy Mathematics teachers shows, it's all in the quality and effort of the teaching. (My younger sister is a great example of this. She "rode the 2nd wave of teacher's kids" in much the same way. However, she had a different 7th grade Algebra teacher--frankly the woman was an incompetent, mean, vicious witch, who taught non-standard methods, and insisted on using a different textbook than all the other algebra teachers. The result? My sister, who in many ways is smarter than I am, HATES math--she got terrible grades in Algebra, and was actually yelled at and _down-graded_ by this teacher for solving problems using the easier-to-remember, standard algebraic formula manipulations I had showed her. Yet it isn't lack of skill on my sister's part--I literally taught her everything she needed to know to pass her senior Calc final, in about 2 days flat--it's that she had a severe emotional/mental block instilled into her by that horrid woman.)
I was more fortunate--except for a certain English teacher in 11th grade, and his drunken ass couldn't dissuade or deter me at that point; I had formed into a "full person" by that point. As for my math experience? Superb--the head of the Math department at our dinky little combined Jr/Sr high-school was a fantastic gentleman (and I'd been in classes with his middle son since first grade) who always encouraged me. He happened to just be a damn good teacher too, who took his job seriously.
I don't mean to turn this into a lengthy rant, but I guess you really hit a nerve. I think teachers should be some of the best-paid working "PROFESSIONALS" around, on par with doctors--they have some of the most important jobs that exist. Naturally, I also think the screening and reviews should be equally picky and harsh. (Of course, that ties in to my opinions about lazy citizenry, politics, ethics, morals, and a whole host of other issues I'll steer clear of for now.)
Hehe, I figured as much, Shawn.
Regarding teachers, as you know I've been an instructor and then a professor all my life (short as it is!). What I generally see is that almost everyone involved has their priorities mixed up. The teachers complain about bad, lazy students. The students complain about boring, ineffective teachers (and woe if they have an accent.) The worst teachers have the attitude that it's not their job to be interesting; the student should be entirely self-motivated and rise to whatever "high standard" the teacher sets. They also enjoy "proving themselves right" about the students being dumb or lazy by asking hard questions, disparaging their abilities or even "their generation," etc. A lot of the dreadful witch-teachers you mentioned are the ones who a step further, abusing or making fun of students and (IMO) disgracing their occupation.
The worst students aren't necessarily the "dumbest" or the least motivated, but rather the ones that have a sense of unearned privilege or entitlement; they already know the topic better than the teacher, or the class isn't valuable and worth their time, or the teacher shouldn't cover "boring" material. In short, the kind of nitwits who wouldn't be able to learn diddlysquat from even the world's greatest teacher.
My attitude is that I should try to make the subject matter interesting, using humor whenever possible, get to know the students, and be friendly without making friends with them. I expect students to do the work I assign, try their best to get it right, and be polite and helpful to their classmates as well as to me.
Couldn't agree more.
That great math teacher I had? The first day I had him, 9th grade Trig, he opened up by saying something like this:
"Understand something. I'm not here to impress you, or to hold your hand. I already KNOW this material, and don't need to prove to you that I do. I'll do the best job I can of presenting it. But if I skip something, or something seems unclear to you, it is YOUR responsibility to pipe-up, raise your hand, get my attention, and ASK. I will gladly re-explain or even offer extra-help in a free period if you're having trouble. You may have to do extra problem sets if that's the case, but I will make sure you learn the material.
HOWEVER.... if on the day of a test, you come up to me and say, 'Mr. O'Neil, I don't quite get that part about sine/cosine relations...' you are going to FAIL that test. I am not going to help you on that day--I expect you to have put in the effort beforehand."
It was great. No B.S. No drama. No arrogance.
I had a similar experience in the very first lecture of my Physics class, freshman year in college. The instructor? Dr. Young--one of the authors of the standard Sears, Zemansky, and Young physics textbook used in colleges all over. His quote (badly remembered):
"I'm here today, not because I need to be. I'm head and chair of the department, a long-standing professor, a researcher, and about a thousand other things. I'm here today because I WANT to be. I specifically insist on teaching Freshman Physics. Why? Because I want to get you before anyone else, before you've had your opinions and emotions warped. Understand something today....
A university, an edifice of "higher learning", at it's very best, is meant to be a place where we ALL come together. We ALL admit our COLLECTIVE ignorance, including me, and we ALL work to do something about it. You will get out of this experience, ONLY what you are willing to put into it."
As is obvious, both of those speeches have really stuck with me through the decades.
For what it's worth Matt, it sounds to me like you're right on track.
My issues with math were somewhat similar. I was never a particularly gifted math student, but did have a fondness for the process. Once I hit seventh grade though, a series of poor teachers combined with my own lack of inherent ability pretty much doomed me to NEVER again catching up in the higher level maths, from Algebra upwards. It was all I could do to pass those classes in college, never truly having that "aha" moment where I understood them in any way. That's what stopped me from pursuing a programming career--I NEVER would have survived the math, even though I demonstrated skill on the BASIC side of things. The combination of my own wiring with the poor teaching doomed me to that.
There actually wasn't a dramatic difference between my math classes and English classes in terms of quality - though I never had English classes near as bad as some of my math classes - but the difference was my inherent ability with writing and fondness for reading was able to easily overcome any teaching deficiencies. Sadly, even though I have a passion and interest in science, my math deficiencies carried over into that and again, a combination of that lack of foundation and a few key poor teachers along the way pretty much doomed any prospects in that avenue.
In any case, no complaints overall with how my life has turned out, and I'll always be the last one to talk of any regrets or changing the past. I believe we are products of our past and since I like who I am as I write this, I wouldn't change a thing.