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SUBSTITUTE by Nicholson Baker


Going to School with a Thousand Kids

by Nicholson Baker

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-399-16098-1
Publisher: Blue Rider Press

The eminent Maine-based author chronicles his lively, maddening month substitute teaching in the local public schools.

An award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, Baker (Traveling Sprinkler, 2013, etc.) subbed mostly in the public schools of Lasswell, Maine, near his home over the course of 28 days scattered between March and June 2014. Reading this day-by-day record—the author substitute taught for classes ranging from first grade to special-education high school math—readers will be struck by how arduous it is simply to fill such long days for the young students. Baker’s “training” was mostly a brief course in learning “codes of cooperation” and Common Core standards, abbreviations for learning disabilities, and clues how to control a class (he did not require a special degree for substitute teaching). He had to pay $50 for a criminal background check and fingerprinting and would earn $70 per day subbing, boosted by $5 for taking the initial training course. His book is literally a record of those 28 days, with verbatim conversations (we assume—did he record them? Or re-create them from notes?) that make for an amusing, spontaneous-feeling narrative, from which readers derive a sense of what it was truly like in the classrooms teeming with rowdy, diverse students. Getting the high schoolers to focus—turn off their electronic devices and quit chatting—was the biggest challenge for the older classes, while the younger pupils often moved from one non sequitur to the next. Baker was able to enlist his strengths as a writer to great effect, but he hated the noise level in the classes and the requirements to follow senseless make-work plans that bludgeoned the students’ creativity and spontaneity. Ultimately, the author’s chronicle is insightful but overly long and occasionally repetitive—indeed, Baker has left a record of what filling up days in school actually looks like.

An affecting (long-exposure) snapshot revealing real-life concerns.