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Posts Tagged ‘students’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

I’ve Been Sick for Over a Year

August 22, 2016 | by

Shanghai 1962

August 18, 2016 | by

How my mother’s accordion led to a chance encounter in Mao’s China.


For years my parents have told me about a photograph that shows my mother shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China under Mao Zedong. The photograph was taken in 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution began, but it was lost until a few weeks ago, when a barrage of Instagram notifications, texts, e-mails, and WeChat messages alerted me that the picture had been found. It had turned up on Facebook, of all places, in a post detailing the history of my mother’s grade school in Shanghai. (A point of recent pride: Yao Ming, the basketball player, was a student at the same school, albeit decades later). An aunt of mine who lives in Hong Kong forwarded the picture to my father, who then distributed it across the Internet.

In the picture, my mother is fourteen. Her hair is in a low ponytail and she has an accordion strapped over her shoulders. She wears a checked knee-length skirt, a white blouse, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes. Several rows of Chinese flags fly in the background; in front of these stand many smiling girls holding bouquets of flowers. All eyes in the picture are on Zhou Enlai as he grips my mother’s hand. He’s tall and handsome, in a Mao suit and strappy sandals. Her smile is easy and uncalculated, bordering on surprise.Read More »

The Landlord from Ioway: James Alan McPherson, 1943–2016

August 10, 2016 | by

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Although I didn’t yet know of his dying, I was thinking of James McPherson in the hours afterward, as I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wanted very much for him to explain how these two lodestars of our current political life, Obama and Trump, could exist in the same galaxy. Years ago, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had witnessed Jim’s unerring ability to find the pulse of the weakest story. Similarly, during the reigns of Reagan and Bush the First, he had listened intently to the whispering of a far right wing not easily heard in the din of that era’s culture war. I knew I had neither Jim’s wisdom nor imagination, and the night of the convention I could only sense that he again, in a way that most of us could not, would understand the spiritual impoverishment that drove this most incredible of political narratives.

I had to content myself with remembering the rumble of his laughter, the way it could start from the tips of his splayed feet and rise up to his fraying straw cap. I thought, too, of the hesitations in the murmur of his hushed voice, the result perhaps of a stutter long mastered, or the refusal to speak anything other than the truth—his truth perhaps, but a truth that many of his students learned to rely on. Read More »

Black History

November 24, 2015 | by

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloudRead More »

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.


I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »