Nicholson Baker: Substitute

by Jennifer Bryce

Nicholson Baker is not a well-known writer in Australia. I wrote a review of his novel Travelling Sprinkler in the early days of this blog:

‘Substitute’ is the term used in the US for emergency teacher — someone who fills in when a regular teacher needs to be absent. To my amazement, it isn’t necessary to have any teaching qualification to be a ‘substitute’ — in some states it’s not even necessary to have any kind of degree or diploma, just to have passed high school.

Baker 1

Nicholson Baker

This book is a chronological account of the twenty-eight days that Baker ‘subbed’ in the school district of Maine. I was drawn to it because for a short period of my professional life I was a high school teacher. The subtitle of the book is ‘Going to school with a thousand kids’ — and that’s exactly what you do. At first I thought it was going to be pretty tedious: there are of course the daily classroom dramas, but there’s no plot, no climax. That’s what Baker intends — to give us a taste of the life of a teacher. We are immersed in the world of a sub. A sub doesn’t even have the interest of shaping the curriculum or watching students develop their skills — Baker is expected to stand in at all levels: high school chemistry, kindergarten, and lots of middle school classes in between. As Baker said in an interview: ‘I think teachers should be paid more. I would never want to pretend that what I did was equal to what they have to do.’

Baker 2

Ubiquitous in these classrooms are malfunctioning iPads, dull worksheets, requests to go to the bathroom, intrusions from the PA system and lists of educational objectives. The objectives reminded me of when I undertook teacher training a long time ago. On our teaching rounds we had to write up our lessons and each lesson had to have an aim and a set of objectives.

Baker 8

The teachers are worn out. Most of their communications to the children are relayed by Baker in upper case letters because they are shouted, or shrieked. They seem to survive on worksheets and assignments — I was sometimes horrified by the expectations, and from Baker’s observations there was no way that most of the kids could understand what they were meant to be doing — it was just a matter of filling in meaningless blanks on a sheet.  In a history class there was a choice of four ‘isms’: fascism, militarism, isolationism and totalitarianism and they were to be paired with phrases such as ‘Foreign policy of the United States after World War I’, or ‘Focus of growth on industry and military, low standard of living, shortage of food and consumer goods’. A third grade class was given an assignment and one of the questions was: Explain how the writer’s style changes in the last two paragraphs [page 535]. There are lots of routines and automatic punishments such as losing time off recess.

There is an implicit criticism of school structure and curriculum, but also an understanding that teachers are greatly undervalued. Baker spends a lot of time chatting to the kids. He often asks, How’s your day going? He is greatly concerned when one student tells him of a drug he’s been prescribed in adult doses and the side effect is that he cannot sleep. Baker speaks to the school nurse about it. Whilst he undertakes the required supervision of work sheet completion, he tries to teach students the basics that they will need to survive — how to spell, and particularly, their times tables. As one reviewer comments: ‘For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.’

In the same review, we learn how Baker managed to write up all this detail. In an interview he said: ‘After the day was over, I parked in a parking lot on the way home and spent a few hours making an anguished set of recollections about the highs and lows of the day.’

Baker 3

It seemed to me that Baker is a natural teacher. If only he could have been let loose in those classrooms with no obligation to supervise quizzes and worksheet completions. He would have read to the kids. He would have drilled them in their tables. He would have talked to them about all kinds of things relevant to their lives.