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.
Substitute has a very granular level of detail, especially in the dialogue. I’m curious about the composition of it. What were your methods? Were you recording your days in the classroom?
I considered not recording, and then I worried about the limitations of my memory. I thought about Truman Capote’s claim that he had a “phonographic memory”—who knows how true that was. Not very true, I think. Joseph Mitchell’s dialogue—beautiful, but not entirely true. I thought of all those big political memoirs, where there’s a disclaimer up front—“based on actual documentary records but I have reimagined the conversation”—I’m not convinced. I always want to know what the people in that room actually said.
So I used an audio recorder as a backup, and I scribbled in a notebook and typed in my computer when I had free time. I also took pictures of the classrooms—of the desks and the clutter and the interesting posters on the walls. 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.
Once the school year was over, some months went by before I started to write. I went back to the audio recordings and slowly felt my way through them—changing everyone’s name, of course. The more the book started to take shape, the more I realized that this was my basic responsibility—to quote kids accurately, while also preserving their privacy. I don’t think there are enough books that actually listen carefully to the moment-by-moment speech of children in class. That’s what this book is about. It isn’t a complete transcript—I had to make many cuts and elisions or the book would have been two thousand pages long—but it’s the most immersive book, from the point of view of writing, I’ve ever done. I lived inside that book for months and months.
If there’s a through line in your work about preservation, what you’re attempting to preserve here are the idiosyncrasies of the students’ speech.
Yes, if you have the privilege of being in a class, tell what you heard and saw so that readers can live through it with you. On the first day, a lot of things happened that were real revelations to me. There were the boys watching videos on their iPads of trucks driving through mud—“mudding”—and the girl who fell asleep because she had to close at McDonald’s and she’d been there until three A.M. that morning. I saw how little math they actually got done as they tried to make their way through worksheets. I could and did write down those things—I could keep up with them. But there’s a moment where one of the kids, Artie, says, “I’ll tell you what’s not acceptable, what if I whipped down my pants and took a shit on your grave?” I scribbled it down, as if I was a reporter in 1937, but I knew even as I wrote it that I hadn’t gotten it quite right. That’s when I realized that I had to rely on technology, to some extent, to capture the exact wording of little sudden outbursts. Artie says, “I’ll tell you what’s not acceptable,” and then he turns it into a question. These minor adjustments, they’re what’s broken off, sanded away, by memory—and they’re precisely the things that are worth thinking about.
How did you decide what stayed in and what went out? Given the tedium of life in the classroom, this should be a torrentially really boring book, but it’s not—it’s lively, and it moves quickly.
Thank you for saying that. Being a substitute teacher feels like anthropology, like fieldwork, like dropping in on a number of extremely complicated micro civilizations. In middle school and high school, the worlds exist serially, one after another—first period, second period, third period. Each time there’s a new bunch of people, new roustabouts, new smart kids, and you have to get through that tiny nugget of whatever you’re supposed to teach all over again. It becomes this Groundhog Day experience. I found it much harder than teaching a college class. There were so many ups and downs. Empires rose and fell, factions, familial disputes, people laughing, people crying, everything. It was exciting. I loved it. And then there’s the level of interruption—of recreational interruption, interruption by teacher’s aides in the room, interruptions by the PA announcements. I knew that in some chapters I was redlining the reader’s patience. The middle school chapters were the hardest. Those kids want to be funny and quick on the draw and they’re all competing with each other. Some of it doesn’t necessarily travel well to the page. Those days had a lot of after-the-fact cutting.
I think the non sequiturs the middle schoolers trot out have the weirdest psychological weight to them. They seem the most productively strange bunch.
The non sequitur is the archetypal utterance of the classroom. These sentences just pop out of people! Tiny stories. Somebody’s dog gets her tongue frozen to the doorstep. Somebody’s learning to balance a sword on her head. A kid has three concussions and while he’s recovering he reads The Hobbit eight times and starts writing a fantasy novel about a dark civilization that exists in the roots of a tree.
You have all these rich metaphors for noise. You must have had to come up with seriously a hundred different ways to describe the rising tide of student noise.
I remember thinking of Joseph Conrad writing about the typhoon. How many ways can you write about wind and rain? Loud voices had very different textures depending on the age group. The cafeteria typhoon was the most amazing, because you couldn’t distinguish any single actual sentence anywhere—they’d been melted and interfused in a brown mass of heavy, heavy noise.
You have your wispier, almost cloud-like noises and then your fire-blanket noises.
And there’s this nice quiet moment, too, at the beginning of the day, where people come in and they put their backpacks up and they know what they’re doing and they gather their homework and put it in a special homework basket. It’s sort of like watching a time-lapse film of a flagstone path in which little bits of clover and grass are growing—little sprouts of early-morning conversation. It’s sort of like you’re witnessing the birth of language. The kids are all sleepy—they all have to recollect how to be speaking people. And then there’s a bleak moment where I have to interrupt them and quiet them down and tell them what to do. It all goes down from there.
How has the reception been at your readings and events?
One of the pleasing things is how many teachers come to these events. They’re curious about me. They want to know, am I a hostile force? Am I a critic? Well, sometimes, indirectly. But I was inspired by some of the teachers and principals and teachers aids I met. One principal said, Use humor, not the hammer. So true. I’m just a guy who has gone through a fraction of what teachers experience, in miniature. 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, steadily, every day. I could take days off and recover and write, which wasn’t true for teachers or students. The students had no choice.
Apart from very occasional interjections, you resist polemicizing or editorializing throughout the book—to your credit, I think. But have you drawn any conclusions from your time in the classroom, any ideas for reform?
What I ended up feeling is that the days were simply too long for everyone involved. Everyone gets tired of being cooped up together for six and a half hours in hot rooms. It’s not healthy. All sorts of pathologies of imprisonment arise. Kids who were perfectly normal, interesting, articulate human beings when you talked to them one-on-one sometimes became insane shouters in a class of twenty-two. Lunch is a horror show. But of course many educators think there should be more school, more homework, more STEM teaching, more vocabulary lists, more history, more sentence-parsing. I don’t agree—my generation had practically no homework and no high-stakes tests and we turned out fairly okay. We did very little writing in school—I didn’t learn what a relative pronoun or an adverbial phrase was until I took French and Latin in college. What I’m hoping, though, is that even if you’re a common-corer or a proponent of “grit” and “rigor” and mandatory algebra II and heavy-duty literary-essay assignments right and left and all the rest of the extremely long, extremely detailed list of preassigned learning targets, you can still read this book and use it to reflect on what life in the warm terrarium of the classroom actually feels like for kids of all ages. There’s a lot of genuine suffering going on, and a lot of bizarre, sometimes funny, subversion. This book is meant to be a big boulder in the road. It says, Okay, reformers, by all means debate what we should be doing with all the billions we spend on education, but here’s what happens. Here’s what the kids I was lucky enough to teach, and to observe, actually said.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.
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