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Remembering the alum who set my mind on Penn.

By Adam Small

Backpacks, coats, and lacrosse equipment cover the benches of the upper-school hallway, and students arrange themselves on the carpeted floor below. The kids are scattered end to end, contemplating mischief, giggling wildly, and sharing facts from the private lives of others in the grave tone of medical diagnosis. In the raucous hormonal confusion, someone will cry today, someone else will be convinced that what he or she feels is love, and everyone will believe at least for a moment that nothing makes any sense whatsoever.

It is therefore mysterious when Mr. Lakin marches past. A quiet man in his sixties with a slow, determined gait, he wears prim Eisenhower-era clothing—his shirt pressed and tucked in—and you can see the comb lines in his hair. He is austere and peaceful. As high school students, we never knew what to make of that.

Brooks Lakin C’58’s reputation was unique. The rigor of your schedule, for instance, could not be taken seriously without his course. To get an A was to demonstrate genius beyond argument, an achievement on par with getting a Ph.D. or winning a Nobel Prize. Mr. Lakin awarded no more than two or three per class.

What we knew of Mr. Lakin’s life came from the brief stories he would let slip during his lectures. Each took place when he was young, and featured the lost America depicted on covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Cars were big, rock and roll was in its infancy, and the milkman delivered bottles of milk to your doorstep. Mr. Lakin played basketball and trumpet. He also beat up a real jerk named Millard Fillmore who worked at the gas station.

That Mr. Lakin casually referred to his tests as “short written exercises” was a testament to his sense of humor. After four short-answer questions, two essays, and a geography section, you could count on a reprimand from the teachers of your later classes, if not for your tardiness then for your utter incapacity to process any more information. On many exam days we missed our subsequent class periods altogether. Mr. Lakin would say, “Alright, get outta here,” and one of us would realize she’d just started the second essay. Panic ruled out departure.

By the end of the American History course, we had all refined our Lakin test rituals. Mine involved a two-liter bottle of soda the night before, along with a seven-hour, unit-by-unit review of class notes, which in their structure and length resembled handwritten legal documents. Not to mention the textbook, nearly two inches thick. By the second year—Twentieth Century World History—we had begun conducting prayer circles in front of Mr. Lakin’s desk. Five or six of us would take a knee and reach one hand, often clutching two or more pens, into the middle.

“God, you know we’ve studied so hard for this test. Give us the strength to write good essays and to remember that Wilson’s League of Nations was set forth in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.”

I stopped by Mr. Lakin’s classroom during my free periods. Its door had a large window, so I could tell when he wasn’t teaching. Tables were arranged around the periphery of the room to make three sides of a square. His desk sat at the open end, on the left-hand side of my vantage point. He would be holding court over the absent class, reading a book with his face quiet and posture straight. Behind him on the whiteboard might be a single word or phrase, like “Works Progress Administration,” that could somehow evoke as much in me as the departing words of a pretty girl.

I made excuses to talk to him, invented questions about nuances of the Constitution, football, or John Wayne. He would look up from behind his big antique glasses and put down his book with just enough of a grin that I knew I could stay. Conversations with Mr. Lakin went slowly, as if undertaken with care. You asked him a question and he first responded with blank silence. A laugh would sound in the hallway, and in time he would deliver his quiet, succinct response: “I would say you should study everything that’s important about the New Deal.” In truth, I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember his demeanor. Being around him, things made sense.

I applied early to the University of Pennsylvania in part because Mr. Lakin claimed it was the only decent university left in the godforsaken present state of American secondary education. I always thought of him when I passed the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity on Locust Walk at 39th Street. It now consists mostly of wrestlers, but I knew that it once had housed basketball players and band members.

Mr. Lakin retired just before I left Baltimore for Penn. I stole one of the decorations from his goodbye reception, an enlarged, matted photograph from what I presume is the late 1970s or early 1980s. In it he has dark hair, a strong chin, and wears a sweater over a collared shirt. He grins at the camera with the same sideways glance he used to give me, as if to say, “I know what trouble you’re up to.” The picture still hangs on the wall at my mother’s house.

He died the same week as Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote one of the books we read for class. Seeing the great historian’s obituary in the newspaper, I could only think of my high school history courses. I reflected on my desire to teach some day, and imagined asking Mr. Lakin what he thought about that idea. In my mind he was perched on his desk, his arms resting in his lap, and his fingertips touching. He smirked at me and stayed quiet for a moment before answering. 

Adam Small C’05 read a version of this essay at L. Brooks Lakin C’58’s memorial service on April 14, 2007, at the Park School of Baltimore. He is currently a first-year student at the School of Medicine.

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