“Open Space” education was already losing steam when I was enrolled in Wilde Lake High School, the flagship high school of Columbia, the so-called “New Town” built by Jim Rouse. “We still say go-at-your-own pace,” guidance counselor Sam Nissan said as he gave my mother, sister and me a tour of the school, “but now there’s a minimum speed limit.”
By then, the self-directed, independent study mode had been all but abandoned for math and science courses, but was still used in English and social studies. The English course — it was known as Great Ideas in Literature, or GIL — was divided into 12 segments, which equaled one credit. The segments were known as “LAPs,” Learning Activity Packets. You checked out a LAP, did the required work, and moved on. New and friendless, I did 12 composition LAPs before the end of the first semester. Most Wilde Lake kids did the same thing, but in May and June, to compensate for a year of procrastination.
LAPs came to mind recently because someone asked me yet again how I managed to be disciplined. I don’t think I’m disciplined so much as mindful of my own limits. Writing a book is, for me, like setting out on a long car trip. If I park on the roadside early on and don’t make the always important “good time,” then I can’t make up for that lack of forward motion later in the trip. I can go only so fast. Apparently, other writers can race toward deadline, doing their best work in the final stretch, writing for up to 16 hours a day. I envy them and if I could do it, I probably would.
Meanwhile, it is a small world, at least in the Baltimore metro area: I now work alongside Sam’s wife, Anna, on the Thursday crew at Viva House, a Southwest Baltimore soup kitchen. And Sam volunteers when he has time. He’s still at Wilde Lake, although not the windowless octagon I attended. They blew that up, literally, a few years ago.