Can you recall the ecstasy of having a substitute fill in for your teacher? Some poor sap, disheveled and half-asleep, would arrive in your classroom, indifferent or scared, and incapable, usually, of reining in the inevitable maelstrom of misbehavior.
For Maine writer Nicholson Baker 59, such memories remain fresh. All these years later, he can still recall his school-days “subs.” “I always used to feel sorry for the substitutes when I was a kid,” said Baker. “Nobody respected them, and justifiably. . . . Why should they take instruction from this complete stranger who is walking in and has a stack of worksheets to hand out?”
Baker’s new book, “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids” chronicles his stint substitute teaching in Maine’s elementary, middle and high schools. The day-by-day, documentary reportage is an illuminating snapshot of public education in America today: curricular standardization, omnipresent technology, and overworked teachers and overmedicated kids overwhelmed by the stress of a thousand tiny distractions.
“For many kids, going to school is simply about finding a way to get through six and a half hours of compulsory deskbound fluorescence without wigging out and incurring punishment,” Baker writes in the preface.
Baker launches a 13-city national book tour for “Substitute” at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Sept. 6.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other literary prizes, Baker is the author of some 15 works of fiction and nonfiction, including “Vox,” “The Fermata,” and “Human Smoke” — novels on such wide-ranging topics as sexual escapades and assassination plots, and treatises on the demise of newspapers and the origins of World War II. “Substitute” is Baker’s first foray into first-person, participatory journalism.
He didn’t set out to write a book about substitute teachers. Initially he wanted to “write a long meditation about educational theory,” Baker said in an interview from his home in South Berwick, Maine. He himself had gone to an alternative high school, School Without Walls, in Rochester, N.Y., and watched his two children, Alice (now 29) and Elias (now 21), go through traditional public schools, mostly in Maine. He thought he’d have something to say about the country’s educational system. “Then I thought, ‘But I don’t have any authority.’ So I got this job as a substitute teacher.”
Despite zero previous experience teaching kids, Baker jumped in. He attended a brief training program offered by a local school. Once approved, he began getting calls at 5:30 a.m. assigning him to a school. For a total of 28 days during the spring of 2014, he taught all ages and grades, from bubbly kindergartners to indifferent seniors — enough fodder for his 719-page doorstopper of a memoir.
“The life of a classroom is so luxuriantly complicated,” said the 6-foot-4, white-bearded Baker, in a gentle, methodical voice. “I threw the theory part out the window and just wrote about what happened.”
What happened was a myriad of ups and downs: helping a third-grader to read aloud from a book, coaxing two high school girls to take an interest in women’s rights, helping sixth-graders understand migration by invoking the video game “Call of Duty.” Baker quelled uprisings, attended to playground scrapes, and tolerated F-bombs. He compared his immersive investigation as a sub, he said, to being “a botanist or an explorer in an unknown land. Which is the way it felt for me. Because it’s been a long time since I’ve been in the fourth, fifth, sixth grade.”
Baker grew up in Rochester, and briefly attended the Eastman School of Music (where he entertained a career as a composer), before transferring to Haverford College, where he met his future wife, Margaret Brentano, a student at neighboring Bryn Mawr. After graduation, Baker worked on Wall Street for a brokerage firm, then quit and began to write fiction. The Atlantic and The New Yorker soon accepted two of his short stories. He was 23.
By 1985, the newlyweds had moved to the Boston area, where Baker, who goes by Nick, worked as a technical writer and did temp work; often, he’d haunt used bookstores in Boston and Cambridge. His first novel, “The Mezzanine,” written in Boston, was published in 1988. The plot, such as it is, recounts the stream-of-consciousness musings of a “guy [who] gets on an escalator at the bottom and rides it up to the top,” Baker said. “A lot of the things that he thinks about were things that I thought about as a person working for a living in Boston.”
What marries all of Baker’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, are the trivial and digressive thoughts of their protagonists, an almost obsessive attention to detail, and events portrayed at a snail’s pace.
“One of the things I’ve always liked doing is slowing time down,” Baker said. In “Substitute,” he creates what he called a “moment-by-moment account” based on microscopic observations of each geometry lesson, classroom exchange, recess break, and PA system interruption. (Baker surreptitiously took notes and made recordings; later, he disguised the names of schools and people, to protect the anonymity of the teachers and kids he encountered.)
“A classroom is chaotic. I had a duty to be true to the chaos as it actually happened.”
How subs handle that havoc depends on “what skills they have and what their assets are,” said Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer for the Maine Department of Education and a former substitute. “Is the teacher you substitute for someone who is well organized and prepared?” Tome said. Does the school create an environment “where students are expected to respect adults, whoever they are?”
But in “Substitute,” Baker keeps any frustrations and prescriptions for changing the system to a minimum. Mostly, his ideas stay in the background. When he does propose a change, his views are couched in scene. For example, after a particularly nutty morning with seventh-graders, he reflects, “All school days should be early-release days, I thought, eating a peanut butter cracker. Nobody learns a thing after lunch.”
In conversation, Baker opened up more about his proposals for school reform. He’s a big proponent of writing and reading, and against the Common Core, which he called “incredibly detailed and bewildering.” He finds most high school courses “arbitrary.” And he abhors the busy-work of “damn worksheets.” Baker would rather see teachers open their students’ eyes to the “exciting world of miscellaneous knowledge” rather than “have these enormous checklists of what kids need to learn.”
Complaints, chaos, and exhaustion aside, Baker said he ultimately found substitute teaching “the most complete experience I’ve ever had of living through something really complicated.” And he found that he “loved all of the children,” even the ones who were irritating at the time, and he appreciated the tender, quiet moments, ones “that now seem to me so singular and perfect and valuable,” like the times kids reached out to him and “would take pity on me.”
“[They’d] say, ‘Mr. Baker, this is the moment when you might want to ask people for their lunch choices,’ ” he recalled. In a “generous way [the students would] try to help me through the day.”
Nicholson Baker will discuss his new book Sept. 6 at Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, at 7 p.m. Click here for more info.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@ethanfreak.