Published Mar 18, 2007

I think I need to write more nice stories about High School, because I keep on bringing up bad news. It’s even worse since I seem to be writing crap these days — I’m not sure I have the tools to make what I write meaningful. But it should be. So, if you could do me a favor and pretend the following had been written in such a way as to make you care, I’d appreciate it.

Brooks Lakin, one of my favorite teachers, passed away on March 8.. His death is an incredible loss to both his past students and the students he’ll never be able to teach. I think I already told the most relevant story about him, but the main point bears repeating:

After taking AP History with Mr. Lakin, no class ever seemed impossible again.

This was true through college and through grad school. After Mr. Lakin, I believed — I had proven to myself — that I could do any volume of work, and that I could think fast and well enough, to succeed in any academic endeavor.

Mr. Lakin’s classroom was in the old part of the Upper School, with no air conditioning and flat, characterless ’50s-style windows, but even on the hottest summer days, when we kept the shades down and the lights off so that it would be as cool as possible, it was never a low-energy place. The Sun article linked above describes him as “courtly and quiet,” but the fact is that Mr. Lakin had a booming voice — sort of a Western Maryland version of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers — and he never hesitated to use it. His big, wooden desk sat at the front of his narrow classroom, with more heavy wooden tables in a u-shape around it; we sat behind the tables, and he on the corner of his desk. When he spoke, his voice would ring off the close walls and fill the room; none of us could ever compete, even when we would argue with each other. Whatever he said, it always made everyone think; whatever he asked, we, again, had to think to answer. It was learning.

Mr. Lakin had a bald, round head, with little glinting eyes and a hint of a combover in his blond hair, atop a big barrel chest — always dressed in a vertically-striped shirt — which itself sat atop polyester pants and leather shoes that were of the same style that everyone’s grandfathers wore to work in faceless corporations. But he was no relic, except perhaps of some era when the educational system reached for excellence: he expected encyclopedic learning and agile thought.

What he built was smart people. He treated us like adults, so we thought and performed like adults. I learned an immense amount in that class — so much that I got a 5 on the AP History test and never studied. I even learned how to work smart, not hard, because otherwise the work for that class would’ve taken hours. Up until a few years ago, I even used the same note-taking style that I perfected in his class, because it simply worked for everything that came along (I only dumped the style because nobody else could decipher it, and I was tired of re-typing notes for co-workers).

Mr. Lakin also taught teamwork, because there was no way you could pass his class alone. Everyone studied together, everyone shared notes, we’d even sit around and throw out ideas of essays he’d expect us to write, then strategize around what the answers would be.

Obviously, I’m sad today. I’d always imagined that I’d some day come back to visit Park and get a chance to say hi to Mr. Lakin. He helped me grow, and I miss those days in his class. I guess it’s too late, but I’ll say it anyway: thanks, Mr. Lakin. You did your job the best it could possibly be done, for 40 years, and I was lucky to have been exposed to that excellence.