A Terrible Beauty is Born

The temptation is to slug this -- oops, I guess old reporters never die, they just slip under their desks into little puddles of bourbon -- You Can Go Home Again. But that seems obvious and not quite accurate. Columbia, Maryland is not home for me. It is a place where I lived for three (pretty happy) years. Those years were formative for me. And, I have come to realize in this first week of touring, constructive.

I entered Wilde Lake High School in 1974. The open-space concept embraced by the young Columbia's school system had begun to close a bit. While students still took some classes independently, completing "segments" or LAPs (learning activity packages) toward credits, the math and science classes were increasingly traditional. That was perfect for a young (and, initially, friendless) nerd such as myself. I did a year's worth of English Composition in four months.

Later I asked my Advanced Composition teacher, Bonnie Daniel, if I could take a beloved novel, The Joyous Season, by Patrick Dennis, and attempt to adapt it into a musical, writing the book and lyrics. Lillian Martin encouraged me to write short stories; one took a minor prize, crucial encouragement at a crucial time.

At Slayton House, the community center in the heart of Wilde Lake Village, I realized I could have filled the hour talking about Slayton House. I had taken dance classes there, a puzzling pursuit for a teenager who had shown zero aptitude for dance. I had attended the film series, seeing Psycho, Amarcord and The Ragman's Daughter. In the dance studio there, we rehearsed "June is Bustin' Out All Over." Anne Allen, the choreographer, happened to be the dance teacher who had barked at me as I made futile attempts to spot during pique turns. I had not been chosen to dance in the chorus -- see zero aptitude for dance, above -- but Anne called me at home and asked that I join. Why, I asked. We both know I'm not very good.

"No," she agreed. "But you work hard and you do what I tell you to do." There are worse lessons to acquire at the age of 18. And by the time we took the stage, Anne Allen had managed the impossible: creating a dance in which a classmate and I executed a lift. I was not a dainty young woman and it was a big deal for me to run across the stage and jump into someone's arms. Remember, this was a full decade before a movie called Dirty Dancing.

Interviewed earlier this week, I was challenged about the almost painful earnestness of the characters in Wilde Lake. Aren't they a little pathetic? No, I replied. Many of the original families of Columbia believed it was possible to create a place where differences across race and class would not matter. That can never be pathetic. Futile, perhaps, but not pathetic. 

The titular lake of Wilde Lake is manmade. But as Lu Brant frets, it still holds all the dangers of a natural lake. It can rise over its banks. A child could drown in it. Teenage boys, daring to cross it during a hard freeze, risk falling through. When men and women create things found in nature, they may think they can control them. But that's not pathetic, either. It is, however, extremely dangerous.