In elementary school, circa 1979 to 1984, I was part of my local school department's only-recently-established program for what were then termed "gifted and talented" students. (This is not a boast, as such, but important background for what follows.) The program was called Quest, and it met on one day per week per grade level, so the first-grade Quest kids did their thing on Mondays, and so on through to the fifth-grade group on Fridays. There were a half-dozen or so of us in the class I was in, I'm not sure about the other years, and we were drawn from all three of the elementary schools the town then possessed. (There's only one now.)
Basically, what we did in Quest was adjourn from our regular classrooms and gather in a duly designated space on one afternoon a week. I remember this space as having moved around from year to year; I have the clearest memories of the year it was in the basement utility room at the school I attended, next to the furnace room, but I also distinctly remember us meeting in an actual classroom over at the newer, shinier elementary school across town. Those of us not regularly attending the school where the program was held would have to get a shuttle van over to wherever it was. We did this transition during the lunch hour, which I remember heartily resenting in the years when it wasn't at my owh school.
Once assembled, we would spend the afternoon doing things the school department's lone elementary G&T specialist* deemed suitable for fostering our growth as the intellectuals of the future, or something. In hindsight it's clear that no one really knew what the goal was, the department just had a mandate from the state Department of Education to Do Something for the kids at the right-hand end of the bell curve, and Quest was it. When I was in the first grade, the town Quest teacher was my mother, who—if I may flatter my antecedents for a moment—had an actual plan; but owing to various facets of bullshit small-town politics, the superintendent dismissed her at the end of that year and replaced her with a woman we'll call Ms. Spencer, who did not, but who claimed to be a member of MENSA, and that was all the superintendent needed to hear.
I don't know if she was a genius, but Ms. Spencer certainly had the eccentricity part down. She was... odd, and (I found out later) problematic for the school department in her own ways. For instance, we were always told (as I noted above) that the Quest period began during lunch because it was the only time the kids who came in from the other schools could be vanned over without disrupting the rest of their school day, and on some level that was probably true; but the real reason was because if they didn't find some reason to keep Ms. Spencer at school over lunch, chances were she would go home and just not come back for the afternoon. Perhaps on some level she knew that she didn't know what the hell she was doing, and occasionally became, if only temporarily, consciously aware of it.
(It's probably just as well we didn't know that at the time; I'm more tolerant of that sort of thing now that I'm an adult with mild-to-moderate imposter syndrome than I was as an elementary school student. After all, Dunning-Kruger is just imposter syndrome that came up tails instead of heads.)
Anyway. When she arrived, Ms. Spencer disregarded most of the materials her predecessor in the job had left for her assistance, and instead embarked on a somewhat haphazard course of study that involved a lot of canned "for advanced students" stuff. We read extensively in a prepackaged literature series called Great Books, for instance, by which I was always puzzled and vaguely offended because they were not the "great books" advertised on the covers; rather, Great Books was a series of watered-down abridgements, like Reader's Digest Condensed Books that have further been rewritten for kids, then crammed full of glosses and explanatory annotations to the point where they're basically impossible to enjoy. (This should not be confused with The Johns Hopkins University's old Great Books of the Western World series, which has its own problems to do with Anglo-European chauvinism but does at least have untampered-with contents.)
This made very little sense to me, the idea of taking a group of kids that had been labeled "gifted" and then making them read books that had been deliberately dumbed down for the kiddie market. Plus, all of the "educational" intrusions into the text made the experience pretty much impossible to enjoy. Imagine trying to read your favorite novel, only to discover that it is not really that novel, plus it has Discussion Questions in boxes scattered around and an essay at the end of each chapter in which you are encouraged to Further Deconstruct What You Have Just Read.
(I can already hear Merc saying "Oh yes please!" but some of us were not that into deconstruction in the third grade, I'm just putting it out there. :)
Still, it could have been worse, and at times it was! We also did some units on Bloom's taxonomy, which was very meta in that Bloom's taxonomy is a cognitive-function/pedagogical-theory framework and not something meant to be taught to children. And one year we conducted a rather abstracted reading of Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, the philosophical novel for children, which in the right hands can provide some pretty deep insights into critical thinking to kids who are ready for it, but which was arguably not in the right hands in this instance.
Those, however, are not the oddest things we did in Quest. No, that honor goes to the month or so, when I was in the fifth grade, when we spent our Gifted and Talented afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons.
For all I know, this would probably be almost tragically mainstream nowadays, but in the 1983-'84 school year, I assure you it was not a typical item on an elementary school curriculum, even one as amorphous and scattershot as Quest's. I mean, if nothing else, keep in mind that the mid-1980s were the third great Moral Panic era (after the Reefer Madness scare of the '30s and Do You Know Where Your Children Are? in the '60s)—the birth-time of the Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics label, and the heyday of the heavy metal-devil worship correlation. Back then, parent groups and church organizations were distributing literature not just implying, but coming right out and saying, that if you let your kids play that kind of game they inevitably turn to a) hard drugs and b) Satan, then murder you, their teachers, and each other, in that order. The archetype of that sort of thing, Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons, was first published in 1984.
But there we were, in a classroom in far-whitebread northern New England, playing D&D for one afternoon a week and getting some nebulous grade-school form of academic credit for it.
And the thing was, we were playing the weirdest version of D&D: Basic Set. Those of you not familiar with the game, or who only played Advanced or one of the Wizards of the Coast editions, may not know of this. In 1977, TSR forked the D&D dev tree; the "flagship" version, greatly expanded in both size and complexity from the original 1974 game, became Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, while at the same time, they offered a stripped-down, tidied-up version of the original rules that they hoped would appeal to mainstream buyers of games. The Basic Set came in a box, like any other game you'd buy at a toy store, and included a rulebook, a very simple adventure module, and a set of extremely chintzy dice.
Basic Set wasn't entirely a bad thing. It was one of the first RPG rulebooks that really took the time to try and explain the concept to a lay audience, as opposed to just assuming (like the original AD&D manuals did) that you wouldn't have bought it if you didn't already know what it was. And the dice were crap, but at the time it was fairly hard to find the kind of dice used in tabletop RPGs if you didn't already know where to look for them. It wasn't like today, where you just google "bulk d20" and instantly find sources for reasonably priced bags of 50 of the damn things.
All that said, though, it was... pretty bad. In fact, thinking about it, it was in line with the Great Books series in terms of "things we did in Quest that were kind of lame simplifications of other things". For one thing, Basic Set only has three alignments, and from the context given in the descriptions, they're obviously good, neutral, and evil, although the designers copped out and called them Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic (because as we all know, lawful people are automatically kind, honest, and unselfish as well, and vice versa). For another, the classes and non-human races are interconnected, so that, for example, all elves are multiclass fighter/magic-users.
I remember that last bit specifically because I had to play the elf, and because the mental image most of my classmates had of such people was much more Santa's Workshop than Lord of the Rings... well, the role wasn't big on dignity, let's just say it that way.
None of this was helped by the fact that Ms. Spencer was about as good at being a Dungeon Master as she was at organizing a curriculum. Maybe she'd never done it before, and hey, we've all been there, but she had all the habits I would much later come to recognize as bad ones for a roleplaying GM to have. She was arbitrary, she godmoded, and she was a rules lawyer. She assigned us our characters; for those of us whose characters had spells, she further assigned those, and because she was into non-violence, none of them could be offensive in nature. Which is how I came to be playing a first-level fighter/magic-user whose spellbook contained Tenser's Floating Disc and not Magic Missile.
Seriously. Non-violence in Dungeons & Dragons. In the default Basic Set adventure, no less, which was absolutely not optimized for that approach.
Seriously. Tenser's Floating Disc.
Obviously, she controlled what we had in our inventories, too. You know those laughable suggested starting equipment lists in the Player's Handbook? The ones that always include a 10-foot pole and 50 feet of rope? (Do they still have those in the newer editions?) Yeah, we all had those. Oh, and because she assigned our inventories, she controlled what weapons we had, too. Which is why my character didn't have one, even though Basic Set elves are basically multiclassed in fighter from the get-go. So he was essentially a first-level magic-user who wasn't as good at it as a human (i.e., non-multiclassed) one. Maybe he had an extra HP or something, I don't know.
With those starting conditions, you can probably guess that the game was a bit of a shambles. None of us had ever encountered an RPG before, and as far as I was ever aware later in school life, nobody else from that class was ever much interested in them again. Certainly I wasn't, for the next three years or so, so this isn't one of those heartwarming "how I found my way into the roleplaying community" stories.
Except that it kind of is, but—as is often the case round these parts—only in a sort of ass-backwards roundabout way. Three years later, I was sitting in my freshman high school Spanish classroom waiting for the teacher to show up, and the guy sitting next to me rummaged around in his bag and came up with one of the licensed D&D novels to pass the time. (I have no memory of which one. There can't have been all that many of them in 1987, can there?)
Ordinarily, I would never bother someone who's trying to read, which has probably cost me any number of Life Connections in its time, because on that particular instance I couldn't help but blurt out something like, "Is that based on the game?"
"Yeah," he said, eyeing me with that wariness that high-school nerds throughout time have regarded that kind of question. "Do you play?"
I shook my head. "No. Well, I tried once. I didn't think it was very good."
(Well, that's how my memory wants to remember it. I was a freshman in high school, I probably said something like like, "It sucked.")
"Was it the red box?" he asked, and when I said yeah, wondering what the color of the box had to do with it, he snorted dismissively and said, "That's Basic Set," but before he could explain what that even meant, the teacher finally rocked up and class got under way.
Next day, same bat-time, same bat-channel, that guy hauled out a battered copy of the AD&D Player's Handbook (the '80s first-edition-second-version one, the one that had the wizard with the 10-foot white beard on the cover) and said "Here, read this" (and probably some '80s equivalent of "Advanced or GTFO" :). Sometime the next week, he invited me over to his place after school and I met a couple of his friends who were a year (or two? I honestly can't remember now, maybe two) ahead of us, and we all rolled up new characters and hit the obligatory tavern for the obligatory adventure hook.
(A bit disappointingly, there were neither hard drugs nor Satan.)
So, yeah! I guess I kind of got into D&D in spite of having played Basic Set in class in the fifth grade. :)
I still have a beat-up, mooshed-box, dice-long-since-lost Basic Set in one of the boxes of junk from my old house, around here someplace. Not sure why I bought it, as I'm pretty sure I never played that version again after Quest. Maybe it's the red box; after I left elementary school, they replaced Ms. Spencer with my mom again, and she presumably inherited all of the the stuff she left behind. I don't remember now, but that has a pleasing symmetry to it.
Also, one of those older guys was Joe Martin, creator of Detians 413 and our same group's long-running MechWarrior GM. So in a really oblique way, I suppose this could also have gone on the UF Source board. But I've rambled enough for one day.
* I once abbreviated it this way while talking with someone about the program, and caused great confusion until my listener realized I was not saying I'd been placed in a special gin & tonic class from the first to fifth grades.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
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