Old Wilde Lake as Remembered by Novelist Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman (center) and her “It’s Academic” team. Laura was the captain of her team.

Photo courtesy of Laura Lippman.

Laura Lippman (center) and her “It’s Academic” team. Laura was the captain of her team.

Award-winning novelist Laura Lippman says that being a writer might be the closest thing she has to a destiny. 

Ms. Lippman’s destiny as a writer has led her to 27 published novels and three short story collections,  primarily of the mystery genre.  Ms. Lippman has won or been nominated for 25 awards, four of which are Edgar Awards. Ms. Lippman has reached another milestone in her career: a screen adaptation of “Lady in the Lake,” starring Natalie Portman and Lupita Nyong’o.

But before she was a successful author, she spent most of her high school years at Wilde Lake when the school was in its full experimental swing. 

In August 1974, a 15-year-old Ms. Lippman walked into Wilde Lake High School for the first time. She was met with the circular hallways, open space classrooms, and a media center that was the heart of the school. The building’s open floor plan allowed students to see their History classroom from Science.

Physical appearances aside, academics at Wilde Lake were much different in the 70s. The majority of classes were self-paced. Activity packets guided education. Students marched to the beat of their own drum, so to speak, and Ms. Lippman didn’t think twice about it. 

“I don’t remember ever walking into Wilde Lake and thinking ‘This is weird. This is strange. I want to be able to look out the window.’ It was where I went to school,” she said.

“Freewheeling and Much Less Traditional”

Ms. Lippman said she was an outsider at first. She grew up in Baltimore where she attended private school through ninth grade.  Her first day at The Lake, she didn’t know anybody, so she poured all of her time into her studies.

“There was this perception that because I came from Baltimore city, I was probably not as smart as kids who had gone to Columbia schools their entire life,” she said. 

The self-paced style of some classes allowed students to work as fast — or as slow — as they wanted. “I did my first year of English composition at Wilde Lake in under four months because I didn’t know anybody,” Ms. Lippman said. “So I just sat there and worked through the learning activity package and was done by January.”

Ms. Lippman says she was guided by her teachers who continued to honor the freedom that students had over their work. 

“I remember Bonnie Daniels, for a segment of my Advanced Composition credit, let me adapt a beloved novel into a musical writing the lyrics from the book,” she said. “It was an amazing experience. I mean, very few schools would have let me do that.”

When she started, Ms. Lippman said the school was realizing that as classes changed, they could not keep the “pure experiments, open space, and independent” learning. Math and Science classes were starting to take on a more traditional approach with lessons, homework, and tests while Humanities classes such as History and English, in which Ms. Lippman thrived, remained self-paced.

“You Could Walk Around the Whole Place”

The unique atmosphere of the school was reflected in what would now be considered unique architectural elements. “I don’t think it was that unusual in terms of architecture at the time,” she said. “I don’t think it was a great time for architecture.” 

Ms. Lippman described the school as a “windowless octagon with the media center in the middle.” Yet, the lack of windows did not seem to bother Ms. Lippman or disrupt the culture of the school.

Ms. Lippman, in her years at Wilde Lake, became observant of the patterns in which the Wildecats moved.

“The one thing I found interesting about it was the fact that it was circular in a sense. You could walk around the whole place,” she said. “That felt very different from any school I’d been in. Every school I’d been in up until then had been a standard multi-level rectangular building with rectangular classrooms.”

“It’s a Super Nerdy Thing”

Laura Lippman’s yearbook photo for 1977, her senior year.

Ms. Lippman says that she knew she wanted a competitive nature at her high school. “My thought process was that in the world at large I will be competing with males, so I want to start competing with them as soon as possible,” she said. 

She joined the “It’s Academic” team where students compete in a trivia style-game, and rose to the Captain position.

Ms. Lippman’s team took their game very seriously. 

“One of the team members from the year before me created a buzzer system and we practiced,” she said. “We would have these practices at least once a week when the competition was going on.”

“We won three out of four matches. We did terribly in the fourth match, but I was really proud of that,” she said.  

“It is just such a badge of honor to have been on “Its Academic” and to have done as well as we did,” she said.

“People Did Not Feel Closed Off”

According to Ms. Lippman, Wilde Lake was unlike the dramatized Hollywood portrayals of high schools that show a hierarchy of students that places mean girls and jocks on the top of the totem pole, and nerds and geeks on the bottom. 

“There were some of the standard groups of cliques like jocks, but those groups were for the most part really loose,” she said “People moved among these groups pretty comfortably. Wilde Lake for the most part, for its time, was a very generous and kind place.”

“It Was Really Hard to Get in Trouble”

Once again going against the status quo, Wilde Lake teachers didn’t banish their students to detention for wrongdoing. Their disciplinary method was more fitting for the nontraditional school, known as Reality Planning (RP). 

Ms. Lippman cannot remember how one would end up in the RP room. She says those who went had to spend a week and “would have to make a plan to fix whatever got [them] into RP.”

But the easy-going atmosphere of The Lake in the 70s meant that not many people were sentenced to time in the RP room, especially not Ms. Lippman, the self-proclaimed “goodie-goodie.”

“I was never even close to getting in trouble at Wilde Lake,” she said. “It was a pretty mellow school. I don’t know how people got in RP, but it just makes me laugh now. It was such a 70s relic.”

“‘Oh, You’re All Just Hippies’”

Wilde Lake’s reputation of being an unconventional school is nothing new. The school has been subject to the judgment of other schools around the county for decades, says Ms. Lippman.

A modern photograph of Laura Lippman. (Photo by Jan Cobb)

Ms. Lippman witnessed these attitudes when she would interact with students from other schools. At an all-county literary magazine event, she was the sole representative of Wilde Lake. At the event, she said boys from Mt. Hebron were being “dismissive” of Wilde Lake and Columbia. 

Howard students had their own perceptions as well. “I met and became friends with a bunch of students from Howard and I remember their view of Wilde Lake: ‘Oh, you’re all just hippies,’ and I thought, ‘What! Have you met my mom and dad?’”

And when Centennial was built, people furthered their negative perception of the Lake as their attention was captured by the new, shiny building erected on Centennial Lane. “I was graduating from Wilde Lake around the time Centennial was opening, and immediately there was the whole ‘Oh, this school is so much better,’” she said.

Despite others’ opinions of her alma mater, Ms. Lippman is proud of where she went to school. “I just don’t have any patience for people who want to be disdainful about Wilde Lake,” she said. “I’m very proud of the fact that I went to public schools in Maryland.”

“I Am Successful Because of Wilde Lake”

Ms. Lippman also recalled the teachers at Wilde Lake, such as Lynn Collins who advised the “It’s Academic” team and left a significant mark on Ms. Lippman’s teenage years.

 “Lynn was like a den mother to some of us,” she said. “Her home was open to us, her interest and care were unrivaled. I’ve never had a teacher quite like Lynn.”

Even after graduating from Wilde Lake, teachers connected with Ms. Lippman.

“My Chemistry teacher came to one of my book signings and he brought my records and showed me what a good student I was,” she said. 

In terms of her writing, it was English teacher Ms. Lillian Martin who was “incredibly supportive” when Ms. Lippman was attempting to write a novel for the first time. 

With Ms. Martin, Ms. Collins, and the rest of her teachers at Wilde Lake by her side, she was put on the path to be a successful novelist.  “I feel like without Wilde Lake, I would have been more easily discouraged, which is something you cannot really afford to do at any point in the publishing landscape,” she said.

And though Ms. Lippman said she might have been born to write, Wilde Lake nurtured her. “I believe being a novelist was the closest thing I had to destiny, but Wilde Lake definitely made me successful,” she said. “I am successful because of Wilde Lake.”