A Substitute for Another Guy

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids
Nicholson Baker

“In fact, for me, the whole school year was over.”

That final sentence refers to June 11, 2014, five years ago this coming Tuesday. It’s a bit short of the  actual end of the school year both here and in Maine, where the events recounted take place.

Our raconteur is the novelist, Nicholson Baker. I’ve read Baker before, and enjoy his writing style, deeply detailed as it is. I’ve even enjoyed his obsessions when they are directed at non-fictional subjects.

This time, though, my eternal problem with endings was reinforced by the subject matter. This book didn’t just end. Organized by date, its end coincided with the end of the school year, always a bittersweet event for me. Despite being mostly self-directed in my learning, I need some structure to react to, so July and August always presented a challenge, at least until I discovered taking summer school classes.

Just why a noted, successful writer (whom no one recognizes) felt compelled to undertake a stint of substitute teaching is unclear to me. Early on, he says he “wanted to find out what life in classrooms was really like.” I’m not sure the participant-observer approach is the best way to scratch that itch because, let’s face it, subs don’t do much.

A high school in Maine. I imagine Baker subbed in buildings like this one.

Even Baker admits his activity was mostly limited to maintaining order and handing out worksheets. Both my children attend elementary school and worksheets are the bane of my existence. I understand the intent is to reinforce skills. I even grant you the notion is not new. I just don’t think they work.

A half century ago we ‘did dittoes‘ which were simply worksheets run off on a duplicating machine with a big A.B. Dick logo on the side. Some teachers called them stencils and, since similar machines were still in use when I entered the workforce, office workers tended to call them mimeos. Picking up dittoes from the office amused the hell out of us Catholic school boys once we had started to build our schoolyard vocabularies. As to the content, beats me and I can remember events from those years in vivid detail.

What’s stuck in my mind about dittoes is that there was so much alcohol in the duplicating fluid you could get drunk off the fumes. A test or worksheet fresh from the office invariably resulted in dozens of youngsters pulling rectangular sheets across their faces and inhaling deeply, as though following a 19th-century deep-breathing regimen. All because a Xerox machine cost so much that no school, and many businesses, couldn’t afford one. (The last workplace I can remember using mimeos was a division of Westinghouse, then a Fortune 500 corporation.)

The technology of my elementary school years: the ditto machine.

You may wonder what dittoes and tipsy students have to do with a serious, 719-page book. Actually, quite a bit because the book amounts to pages of student observations much like my stencil tale, all updated for the 21st century. Depsite all the technology–laptops, iPads, smart boards–kids are still kids and school is still something they have to get through.

Again, that’s something Baker says and, like me, he does it a bit ruefully. That might be the most interesting thing I learned. Baker and I are close in age but our own educations couldn’t be more different. He seems to have taken part in almost every educational experiment being run in the public schools of Monroe County, New York during the 1960s and 70s. I sat in one of 30 or more desks arranged in rows following an approach still used in many parochial schools and found similar rows when I moved along to the local public high school.

And yet he and I both wound up , in his words, “in college where I learned how to write and work hard.” Yet I’m haunted by how much more I could have gotten out of school if I’d been alternately pushed and given freedom instead of being controlled. Perhaps I am an unregimentable personality, but maybe–here’s an idea– teachers can learn from their students. I do, every semester I teach.

There’s a lot more tech in today’s classroom although it seems to be used for entertainment as much as learning.

Baker, the miniaturist, conveys his frustrations, which I’d describe as parallel to mine, rather than similar or the same, through his chosen approach: detailed description. Actually, detailed description might be a misstatement. Detailed transcription might be more accurate because, although the names have been changed, the things the kids say are reported more or less verbatim.

I actually have no basis for making that last claim. The kids voices sound authentic, at least to me. But I’ve spoken before of Baker’s style and how like Shaker furniture it requires stripping all ornamentation to reveal beauty. These kids are maybe a bit too verbally perfect, but I am comfortable with novelistic touches in reportage and non-fiction.

I could demonstrate but, even cleansed of all its “uhms,” “ahs” and “you knows,” kid language isn’t terribly interesting to read. At least not page after page of it and at least not to me. If I were peer-reviewing this as a social science manuscript  I’d suggest paring back and classifying the quotes so the reader can follow the author’s point.

Education really ought to be about the kids. Baker & I agree on that.

Baker, no doubt, would disagree and perhaps he’s right. His method certainly does manage to convey the repetitive and mundane nature of school days including the administrative intrusions and mandates that make a challenging situation farcical at times.

There’s a reason schools are the way they are and I’d send you all off with a reading list that begins with Randall Collins if you’re really interested. Or you can spend, as I did, a semester with Baker and his kids. I’m not sure you’ll come away understanding ‘why’ schools are the way they are. You may, as I did, come away with so many questions about classroom practice that a working teacher flees at the sight of you.  (Whenever I’d start a question, my in-house educator, Mrs. AHC, would utter a prayer aloud that I finish reading the book already.)

Maybe, though, you’ll come away as Baker (I think) and I did,  marveling at the curiosity and inventiveness of children. And loving them for it even as we shuddered at the institutional nuisances thrown at them.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.