Book of the week
Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids
Nicholson Baker’s account of his brief stint as a substitute teacher “may be the most revealing depiction of the contemporary American classroom that we have to date,” said Garret Keizer in The New York Times. For two months in 2014, the iconoclastic novelist was on call every day to fill in as needed in a public school district in rural Maine. Most days, students simply completed existing assignments while he tried to keep the noise from reaching what he calls “a full riot-gear fluffernutter death-metal maelstrom.” He came to agree with the student view that school is pointlessly boring, and his detailed chronicle, at 700 pages, makes us feel the boredom, too. “Is all this tedium really necessary?” the reader asks, only to realize that we should all be asking the same question on behalf of our kids.
“Baker understands that he’s not charting new territory,” said J.C. Hallman in the San Francisco Chronicle. But as a graduate of an experimental high school that had no grades or attendance requirements, he’s the ultimate outsider in a conventional public school. What he sees of the institution does not impress: the ceaseless din of bells and loudspeaker announcements, disengaged teachers who use Wikipedia articles for lesson plans, and school-subsidized iPads that are more distractions than tools of learning. Though Baker easily wins the affection of his students by indulging in mildly irreverent humor, he confesses to losing his cool on occasion. Mostly, he likes the kids he encounters, even though he worries that, as a group, they’re overmedicated and plagued by unresolved anger issues. “Soon enough,” our hero decides our children are wasting time stuffing their minds with grammar and Algebra II. More appropriate would be “a good dose of existential philosophy.”
In other words, Baker has no serious suggestions for reform, said Sara Mosle in The Atlantic. By the end of his account, the exasperated author has “shifted into saboteur mode,” showering students with empty compliments and encouraging them to flout the rules. Working in an environment where men are scarce, he also begins second-guessing the female teachers he considers killjoys. Real teaching, though, requires “exhausting, devouring, demanding work,” the kind he’s not interested in doing. Still, there’s real value in the “moment-tomoment vividness” he brings to the experience of being in a school system weighed down by an accumulation of questionable obligations. Ultimately, “his book is a reminder that kids and teachers are often in the same boat, and both deserve better.”