A teacher’s grinding, sometimes stultifying, life in a public school classroom
"Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids" by Nicholson Baker (Blue Rider)
Dana Goldstein is a journalist and author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.”
‘Substitute,” by the prolific novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker, is an odd book. More than 700 pages long, it covers just 28 days in Baker’s life, during which he worked as a substitute teacher in Maine public schools.
Baker is an award-winning author who has taught college. To become a substitute, he was asked to produce merely a high school diploma and a clean criminal record. He earned $70 per day. Baker doesn’t tell us much about why he embarked on this experiment, other than (presumably) to write about it.
He mentions only in passing that his own children attended public school and that, in 1967, he was one of the first white students in Rochester, N.Y., to participate in a voluntary racial integration program. In a single paragraph, Baker fondly recalls Mr. Toole, his eighth-grade English teacher, who assigned Homer’s “Iliad” and suggested that Baker write his own epic poem. That teacher “changed my life,” he writes. Yet as a narrator, Baker rarely reflects explicitly as a former student, a father or even as a professional writer. “I sought out the teaching job because I wanted to know what life in classrooms was really like,” he writes. “There are many books of educational advice, of theory, of hagiography, of gloomy prognosis — what’s missing is a lived-through experience of how busy and complicated and weird and long every school day is.”
Baker has succeeded in filling this void. “Substitute” faithfully re-creates the grinding, sometimes stultifying routines of classroom life, from shushing the class to cleaning the dry-erase board. Unfortunately, this comes at considerable expense for readers. Baker does not explain his reportorial methods, but the way the book is written, as a series of dialogue-driven vignettes, suggests he tape-recorded each of his days as a substitute. The resulting book too often reads like a transcript, albeit one that highlights both the tedium and charm of teaching school. For example, here is part of a scene from a middle-school classroom:
“ ‘Carry on guys,’ I said, ‘I want to see real math happening.’
“ ‘I feel laughy today,’ said Serena.
“Waylon and Roan signed into Fast Math on their computers. ‘Would that be thirty-six?’ asked Waylon slowly.
“I said four times eight was not thirty-six. ‘It’s close to thirty-six.’ ”