Noted author discusses insights gained as a substitute teacher

Scripps College kicked off its Scripps Presents series last month by welcoming novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker, whose latest book, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids, sheds light on education in America today.

Mr. Baker illumines readers not by quoting figures or delving into academic philosophy but instead by serving as a faithful observer of all the moments that make up the day for a student, and for a substitute teacher. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is “a gripping and indispensable time-capsule of teaching and learning in the 21st century.”

After taking the stage of Balch Auditorium, Mr. Baker was introduced and interviewed by Jonathan Lethem, a renowned author who teaches creative writing and English at Pomona College.

Mr. Lethem is a longtime fan, with his admiration dating back to when he was a fledgling writer admiring Mr. Baker’s stories in the New Yorker. His status shifted from fan to friend through some serendipitous events.

Both writers were living in Berkeley when Mr. Lethem, then working as a bookseller, ran into his idol at a café. He got up his nerve to ask the older writer to coffee and figured his brush with literary greatness was a one-off.

Some time later Mr. Baker moved to a Maine town, just a few miles from the home of Mr. Lethem’s father, the painter Richard Brown Lethem. There, Jonathan Lethem—who spends time in Maine every summer—was reunited with Mr. Baker, thanks to an interesting piece of synchronicity: Quakerism runs in both writers’ families.

Mr. Baker, a self-described “atheist Quaker,” began attending the same Quaker meeting as the elder Mr. Lethem. The younger Mr. Lethem found it surreal to have his hero “recur in this magical way in my world” and to encounter him in a “very informal and sweet circumstance.”

Mr. Lethem’s first question was whether Mr. Baker, primarily a novelist, ever imagined he would find himself writing non-fiction.

“I always had in the back of my mind that it’s possible to write factual things. The problem with factual writing is that it actually has to be true,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

“And fictional writing can be true but you can kind of reorder things a little bit, make it easier to understand,” he continued. “Somewhere along the way, though. . .I thought, I want to write something that’s factual, where I’m not a lonely person writing a novel.

“I get to call people up on the phone and say, ‘I’m writing for the New Yorker about X and I’d love to talk to you about what you know,’” he continued. “Because it’s friendlier. Nonfiction allows you to connect to the world.”

Mr. Lethem next praised Mr. Baker’s first book, The Mezzanine, which is set entirely during the protagonist’s journey up to the mezzanine floor of his office building.

“The book is famously a kind of super-exploded rendition of a very, very brief amount of time,” Mr. Lethem marveled. “The character in the real-time of the story only manages to ride the escalator. Is that right?”

“It’s a travel book,” Mr. Baker quipped.

“It’s a book that begged the term miniaturist,” Mr. Lethem continued. “What you did was take tiny things and unpack them into extraordinary levels of close observation, and to slow time down. You’d notice shoelaces and the eyelets on shoelaces and write about that for a few pages, and it was like the world was being lovingly, precisely catalogued.”

Substitute also demonstrates this archival quality—offering insight into the macrocosmic world of education by looking at microcosmic moments. 

“What’s astonishing about what Nick did in his writing about being a substitute teacher is that he didn’t generalize about the experience. It’s a kind of a giant catalog of moment. Every day he walked into a classroom as a substitute teacher is accounted for. And in a sense,” Mr. Lethem continued, turning to Mr. Baker, “it feels as though every minute of every day that you spent as a substitute teacher is accounted for.”

Regarding his time as the titular narrator of Substitute, Mr. Baker is careful to establish that he is not a teacher. He emphasizes that he can only guess at what it’s like to spend an entire school year trying to shape sometimes-unwilling minds and, as he says in his book, “keep a lid on the lunacy day after day.”

He did, however, spend 28 nonconsecutive days in 2014 as a substitute teacher in a Maine public school district. His book meticulously describes the happenings of each class, highlighting the kind of minutiae usually absent from educational treatises.

A substitute, Mr. Baker feels, is someone whose job is to fill the holes that sometimes spring up in the school system. As such, he or she can only manage so much meaningful teaching. Students tend to act up when a sub is in class, too, and so he found himself spending an inordinate amount of time policing behavior.

Typically, his lessons plans involved a series of worksheets. At one point, he overheard a teacher in the break room, sharing good-naturedly that they don’t even check the worksheets left for subs.

Still, Mr. Baker managed to find value in the little victories, as when he helped a boy learn to spell the word through.

What are the conclusions to be drawn from Substitute?

One is that students deserve a bit of empathy. They wake up, yawning, and head for a place that is in some ways similar to a prison. Kids spend their day in an institution, every action prescribed and with their movements signaled by the clanging of a bell. And sometimes they face tremendous obstacles while trying to learn.

One high school student fell asleep in class because she had worked a nightshift at her job. Another boy had trouble keeping his eyes open because a newly-upped dose of the anti-anxiety drug Paxil was giving him insomnia.

In the course of Substitute, kids act up and calm down, take their work seriously or shake it off. They contend with the vagaries of the new Common Core standards and with the distractions of iPads and smart phones.

Mr. Baker sometimes congratulates himself for a day successfully negotiated and, at other times, excoriates himself for being a terrible teacher. That’s life as a sub.

While Mr. Baker leaves most conclusions to his readers, he has some opinions that seep through. He sees schools as “prematurely forcing kindergarten kids to write” when he, as a 5-year-old, was finger-painting. He believes the school day is too long, and that most students are exhausted and done learning after lunchtime.

Some of his unconventional attitudes stem from the fact that, as a teen, he attended an alternative high school, School Without Walls. Despite being left pretty much to his own devices, Mr. Baker managed to emerge ready for college and the real world.

One question hovers, ever-present: Is meaningful learning going on, or is the school year packed with soul-destroying busywork? It’s left up to the reader to decide.

You can view Mr. Baker’s full talk on the Scripps College YouTube channel. The Scripps Presents series continues on Saturday, October 29 at 8 p.m. with a free performance at Garrison Theater by Ensemble Dal Niente, a 13-member Chicago-based contemporary music collective. Ticket reservations are required and can be obtained in the events section of the Scripps website,

—Sarah Torribio


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