[Marxism] Imagine Your Substitute Teacher Is Nicholson Baker. For These Kids, He Was.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 28 10:26:52 MDT 2016

(Baker is the author of the revisionist "Human Smoke: The Beginnings of 
WWII". I had the same reaction as his after just 4 days of teaching 5th 
grade in Harlem back in 1968: “I felt drained, numb, brain-dead.”)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 28 2016
Imagine Your Substitute Teacher Is Nicholson Baker. For These Kids, He Was.

Going to School With a Thousand Kids
By Nicholson Baker
719 pp. Blue Rider Press. $30.

In talks to teachers, I have sometimes invited them to imagine the 
brighter lights of history taking on their jobs. Picture Gandhi with a 
study hall, I’ll say, or Churchill teaching seventh grade. Failed 
schoolmasters like Thoreau and Wittgenstein further support my point, 
which is how lost even the most gifted person can become in a classroom 
full of needy kids.

With the publication of Nicholson Baker’s “Substitute,” a meticulously 
detailed account of his 28 days working as a K-12 substitute teacher in 
a Maine public school district, I have a new name to add to the list. 
Baker, too, is often lost — “sick with shame” one day, a “hopeless 
jackass” another — but he doesn’t always fail. Neither does this book, 
whose laudable if elusive aim is to show “what life in classrooms” is 
“really like.”

At first glance, Baker’s day-by-day narrative seems to have as much to 
do with education as his erotic novels have to do with sex. You wouldn’t 
give “Vox” to an extraterrestrial curious to know what earthlings mean 
by making whoopee, and you wouldn’t give “Substitute” to an 
undergraduate curious to know what it means to teach. The prophylactics 
are just too thick: in “Vox,” the phone; in “Substitute,” the phoniness 
implicit in the phrase “substitute teaching.”

Baker surely knows this. “It was easy for me to be ‘cool’ by making a 
few mildly subversive references,” he says at one point, “but they” — 
teachers — “had to keep a lid on the lunacy day after day.” He could 
have gone further. His fleeting encounters with “a thousand kids” do not 
enable him to see any of them grow, or fail to grow. He writes no lesson 
plans, takes home no papers to correct. Unlike virtually every adult he 
encounters, he does not (we assume) need the job. Nor is he ever in much 
danger of losing it. The classes in his charge frequently degenerate 
into lesser versions of a cafeteria’s “full ­riot-gear fluffernutter 
death-metal maelstrom,” but he is called back to sub again and again. As 
for his “mildly subversive references” — consisting mostly of jabs at 
the value of what he has been asked to teach — they affect his paycheck 
to about the same degree as belittling John McCain’s war record affected 
Donald Trump.

The lives of teachers are not so much Baker’s concern, however, as the 
burdens of backpack-laden kids. The constant barking of the P.A. system, 
the successful completion of work sheets as the seeming “aim of life,” 
children overwhelmed by tasks they have no idea how to do, children 
­overmedicated to the point of hallucination (one on so much Paxil that 
he’s hearing voices in his head), a class of third graders expected to 
address their routine problems (“I have to go to the bathroom, but 
somebody is already out and it’s an emergency”) by using a scanner app 
on their almighty iPads — Baker puts it all in our face. He also 
includes some delightful encounters — with a charming boy who loves 
riddles, for example — but they only add poignancy to a question Baker 
poses to one of his ­students: “Is it an engine of oppression, school?”

He leaves the answer to us. For such a long book, Baker makes few 
recommendations, most of them modest enough — shorter days, less 
homework, more attention to foundational knowledge (including how to 
spell). As a rule he’s on firmer ground when he questions sequence than 
when he balks at scope. His remarks on the folly of “prematurely forcing 
kindergarten kids to write” would get a thumbs up from anyone with a 
5-year-old or a heart. On the other hand, when he suggests to a science 
class that terms of taxonomy are deliberately obscure and probably 
useless, the reader wonders whether he’s joking. He isn’t. On his last 
page and out of earshot of any students, he tells us: “There are no key 
terms. There are no themes, no thesis sentences. There are no main 
ideas.” This would make a fine epigraph for a postmodernist novel; I’m 
not sure it makes the best credo for equipping a young person to read it.

Baker rightly perceives the detrimental hands of “educational theorists” 
and corporate opportunists (a grossly biased resource on nuclear power 
is included in one of his teaching packets) in creating schools where 
“mind and soul” are reduced to “dead meat.” What he may not perceive is 
how the programmed inanities of the School Reform movement are partly an 
overreaction to the very sort of teacher Baker at times typifies to the 
point of burlesque: the blithe boomer oracle who just wants children to 
“be themselves,” who hates “separating people” even if they’re making it 
impossible for other people to think, who stands in the midst of 
pandemonium munching an apple while Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” plays 
in his head. “Did you used to be a hippie?” a student asks Baker. I beat 
that kid to the punch by about a hundred pages.

But any deficiencies one might find in Baker’s classroom management, and 
he finds plenty on his own, are not all his fault. “Substitute” reminds 
us how even the best teachers can only be a little better than the 
schools in which they teach. “You survived,” an assistant principal says 
to Baker at the end of a trying day, an outcome any administrator worth 
his share of oxygen would have guaranteed by showing up in Baker’s 
classroom no later than 8:30 that morning. Never happens. Nor does it 
occur to anyone that a writer as accomplished as Nicholson Baker might 
be put to better uses than a review of the template for constructing a 
“hamburger” essay. Why not invite Stephen Hawking to a physics class so 
he can recalibrate the scales?

Nevertheless, Baker’s natural teaching skills and fundamental decency do 
get their chance. This happens most often when he’s teaching younger 
students. He instructs a kindergarten class on the formation of rocks 
and the rudiments of conversation: “When you’re having a conversation 
with somebody, you want to bring them out. You want to ask them 
questions about what they’re doing.” He spots a quotation from Samuel 
Johnson on a motivational poster and guides a class of fourth graders in 
parsing what it means, adding a bonus sketch of Johnson’s life worth a 
truckload of motivational posters. In a scene straight out of Boswell 
(Johnson’s encounter with a Highland girl who mistook him for a giant), 
the 6-foot-4 Baker (“How tall are you?” he’s asked repeatedly) comforts 
a kindergartner crying for her mother, first by inviting the girl to 
talk about her mom and then by changing the subject to pets. He goes to 
the school nurse to intercede (successfully it seems) for the kid going 
bonkers from Paxil. When the never-resolved conflict between the 
author’s caveats (“I think to myself, I don’t care”) and integrity (“And 
then I think, What would the teacher do?”) comes to a head with the 
confession of a conscientious second grader who still owes five punitive 
minutes of sitting against a wall during recess, Baker makes a move even 
more impressive than the disappearing cracker trick he teaches some of 
his classes: He sits with the kid.

“I felt drained, numb, brain-dead,” Baker says after his fifth day of 
teaching. I felt the same way after finishing his hefty book — which is 
merely to say that I think I understood it. With irresistible 
effrontery, “Substitute” dares its readers to ask, “Is all this tedium 
really necessary?” only to have us turn and ask the same question on 
behalf of our kids. For that reason alone, there are few substitutes for 
“Substitute.” Excepting those accounts that point to larger social 
injustices, Baker’s book may be the most revealing depiction of the 
contemporary American classroom that we have to date.

Garret Keizer’s most recent book is “Getting Schooled.” He is writing a 
novel about a first-grade teacher.

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