Nicholson Baker wanted to know what life in the classroom was really like. To that end, the renowned author of 10 novels and five works of nonfiction took a substitute-teaching course, got fingerprinted and became an on-call sub in Lasswell, Maine. “Substitute” is his experience working with K-12 kids for 28 days in 2014.

“I’ve tried to convey,” Baker writes in the book’s preface, “without exaggeration, the noisy, distracted, crazy-making reality of one fairly typical, not-terribly-poor-but-hardly-rich school district.”

Though a giant doorstopper of a thing, the book is a fun read. Baker evokes a familiar tableau — daily announcements and lunch menus, cacophonous hallways and wood-grained desks, taxonomy-of-learning posters and stacked chairs — and then peoples it with the fetching children and hardworking teachers he works with.

Every day at 5 a.m., the 6-foot-4, 57-year-old-writer gamely answers the dispatcher’s call, packs his hand sanitizer and his coffee and drives the dark roads of Maine to face a roomful of third-graders or fifth-graders or high school freshmen — wherever he is needed.

The book consists of 28 chapters, each representing a day in the classroom. In typical Baker fashion, the writing is keen, lively and kind (at least where the kids are concerned; teachers and “ed techs” are not rendered so sympathetically).

Baker’s observations — such as, “The sound of children rose to a full riot-gear fluffernutter death-metal maelstrom” or, “I watched the children leap onto the buses like reverse paratroopers” — are a treat to read. It’s good to be in his head, to see the kids, the teachers, the “six and a half hours of compulsory deskbound fluorescence” through his eyes.

Occasionally, Baker interjects an observation of today’s educational system that might seem a logical conclusion of his intermittent time there.

He disdains excessive homework, for example, and reading logs. He makes a strong case that iPads and computers detract from the learning environment instead of enhancing it. Teachers yell a lot, and kids are always being made to listen — all cringe-worthy stuff, to be sure, but the book shouldn’t be considered a sociological study of education. Baker is a sub, after all, not a teacher, and there is a world of difference.

The book is a bit long, but it is a worthwhile and entertaining read for anyone who has ever gone to school or knows anyone in school. Pages are filled with kid dialogue and great sentences and pithy moments such as when Baker reads fiction out loud to the students and finds — no matter the age group — that reading stories is the only thing that consistently quiets them.

All in all, Baker comes across as a lanky, grandfatherly sort genuinely concerned for his charges, a man who ultimately concludes, as most teachers do, “I love these kids. I really love these kids.”

 

Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and a high school English teacher.

Substitute
By: Nicholson Baker.
Publisher: Blue Rider Press, 719 pages, $30.