Wilde Days

March 13, 1994|By LAURA LIPPMAN

Twenty years ago, I traveled one of the greatest distances one could cover in Maryland's public school system: I left the "A" course at Baltimore's Western High School, a rigorous college preparatory program that had me on the verge of a breakdown, for the wide, open spaces of Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, where failure was impossible.

Wilde Lake, just three years old, was already revising itself, as it has continued to do over the years. But the overhaul announced last month, which includes a traditional grade structure with failing grades, may mark the end of an era.

In some ways, it's hard to mourn that end. From the beginning, "open space" education, like a temperamental new car, seemed to need constant tinkering. The first thing to go was the idea that students could work at their own speed. Given the discipline of the average teen-ager, it's not surprising some "seniors" had almost no credits.

"We still say 'Go at your own pace,' " said the guidance counselor who gave me a tour of the windowless octagon in the summer of 1974, "but now there's a minimum speed limit."

Wilde Lake also decided early on that some classes, such as math, science and foreign languages, needed to be taught in more traditional fashion. Still, the schedule was full of free periods, known as "independent study sessions." Students in good standing could roam the halls during these periods or congregate in the "media center" -- a widespread term for a school library now, but not at the time.

Sometimes, it seemed Wilde Lake had more jargon than the federal government. Social studies and English courses were taught through LAPs (learning activity packages), in which a student selected a topic, did the required activities, took a test or wrote a report, then moved on. Typically, an English class had 12 LAPs, and a bright student could do all 12 in one semester or less.

In fact, many of my classmates did an entire year of English in just six weeks -- usually the last six weeks. Until then, their report cards yawned with blank spaces. The school sent home notices that their work was off the pace, but it didn't matter. Remember, there was no failure here, just "incomplete."

Procrastination was the norm, hard work suspect. Finishing my first year of English composition by January cemented my nerd BTC reputation. Yet good grades were cool, and standardized tests -- all results, no effort -- were worshiped. In the 1970s, Wilde Lake was a college prep machine. We took practice versions of the PSAT and advanced placement tests. We took all sorts of IQ tests. Those of us who wanted A's even re-took classroom tests -- but perhaps my memory errs on that. Still, I am sure at least five students in a class of 300-plus had straight A averages.

Given the good grades, high test scores and college application essays polished and honed in English class, many in the class of 1977 found getting into college quite easy. We went off to Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell, Wesleyan, Stanford, Princeton, Haverford and Northwestern -- and ran smack into the limitations of our "open space" educations.

We didn't know how to study. We didn't know how to pace ourselves. We didn't understand that one could not wait until the end of a semester and cram all the work in.

I say "we," but I can speak only for myself, although some classmates confided how tough college was in those first years. It took me two years before I started earning the kind of grades that had come so effortlessly at Wilde Lake. I'm ashamed to confess that my greatest talent, among my Northwestern classmates, was my ability to rationalize: I figured out the least amount of work required for a good grade and did just that. It was the Wilde Lake way.

Would I trade my Wilde Lake High School experience for a more traditional one? Never. Because when I think about high school, it's not to dwell on what I didn't learn, but what I was allowed to do.

Wilde Lake never held anyone back, in any sense of the word. You couldn't fail there, but you could excel. Ultimately, the only person you competed against at Wilde Lake was yourself.

For English, I adapted a novel into a musical, complete with libretto. I conquered my math phobia, receiving straight A's in the geometry and algebra classes that had driven me to tears in Baltimore. I used my free periods to read the plays of William Inge, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. I read "The Sound and the Fury." It wasn't because I was an unusually motivated student. I just had great teachers.

When The Sun's Lan Nguyen wrote about the revamped "adviser" system at Wilde Lake, most readers probably assumed it was a fancy name for homeroom. My adviser, Lynn Collins, still with the Howard County school system, opened her home to the brainy misfits in her group. She also took exceptionally talented math students -- I was not one of these -- far beyond calculus.

Bonnie Daniel, now the principal at Wilde Lake, was the teacher who enthusiastically agreed to give me credit for writing a musical. Don McBee, the drama teacher, found talent in students who never knew they had any. But I shouldn't have started naming names, because I could never name them all. Let me put it this way: I don't remember having a single bad teacher at Wilde Lake.

Gee -- it all comes down to the teaching. Now there's a radical new concept for education.

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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