For decades, I’ve longed to live in Nicholson Baker’s world. It’s a warmer, funnier, more generous place than the one I normally inhabit. His oft-autobiographical fiction, from The Mezzanine to Traveling Sprinkler, is peopled with affable, cheerfully curious narrators, and famously overflows with uncannily precise, refreshing observation (and often an unbridled, playful sexuality). His non-fiction, borne of a related empathy, and which includes the pacifistic study of World War II, Human Smoke, hums with a quiet outrage. They are uncommonly poetic polemics.
His sixteenth book, Substitute, is also non-fiction, though the membrane between the two categories can be thin. Baker the narrator—wry, intimate, sometimes hapless—sounds an awful lot like the narrator of Baker’s last two novels, the fictional poet Paul Chowder. But Substitute is Baker’s first foray into first-person, participatory journalism. In 2014, in an attempt to better understand the American public school system, Baker got a job as a substitute teacher in his home state of Maine. Over the course of twenty-eight days he teaches every grade level, from kindergarten to high school—though, as he quickly learns, no one expects him to really teach: He’s there to entertain, distract, babysit and enforce the rules of an education system he soon realizes is capricious and punishingly misguided. Baker sees his role somewhat differently. “I figure my job as a substitute is to give people a little more latitude,” he tells an eighth-grader, “because on the days when Mr. Monette’s here, they don’t get any.”
What unfolds over this lengthy chronicle—the book clocks in at more than 700 pages—is a highly detailed account of those exhausting, maddening, messy, rewarding days. Baker grapples with new digital tools—every student, it seems, has been given an iPad—and a thicket of arcane acronyms (STAR, CARE, SMILE). He suffers through an attempt to teach conflict in literature—a comical moment for anyone who’s read Baker’s plot-averse novels—and deals with the very real conflicts induced by overmedicated students. There are teachers who know less than he does and students who know more. A shy, sensitive fifty-nine-year-old, Baker repeatedly tries to keep a lid on the noise in his classrooms. He repeatedly fails.
Frustrated and overwhelmed though he may be, Baker is a gentle presence throughout the book—each day is punctuated by the mundane details of his arrival and departure from various schools and what he has for lunch. But Substitute largely belongs to his students.
The churn of their comical, strange, surprising, endearing voices—which Baker captures with characteristic accuracy—makes up the bulk of the book. For Baker the writer, the rhythm and originality of their language is a delight. For Baker the educational reformer, it’s evidence of a system that needs rethinking.
I spoke to Baker over the phone in early September, when, on tour for the book, he was in a Boston hotel room. I was in Toronto.
Jason McBride: It was my son’s first day of kindergarten today. I wonder if you have any advice for us as we embark on this scholastic adventure?
Nicholson Baker: I would just say enjoy it and try to keep it light, and not get sucked into the homework Bermuda Triangle, trying to enforce assignments that you might not necessarily believe in. That's the part that was a little tricky for my wife and me as parents. You want your kid to do what the school demands, but honestly I don’t believe that there should be any homework in elementary school. I don't know why there would be. The school day is long enough, and life has so many delights in it.
Good to know.
That’s a long way away but it isn’t as long as you think. These kids that I was teaching in first, second grade were taking home homework. Totally unnecessary and really counter-productive. If parents would just essentially go on strike against elementary school homework I think we'd start to get somewhere.
You had some trouble with that, too, as a substitute. There were certain lessons that the schools wanted you to convey to the students that you took issue with.
Well, you know, my job was—and I did do it as conscientiously as I could—was to pass out worksheets, and to try to cajole kids into making some progress on them. But the teachers didn’t really believe that the substitutes were going to get much out of the kids, so in some ways it was a ritual. Nobody really believed in the worksheets that students did on days when the teachers weren’t there. I just did my best to fumble through. Sometimes the worksheets were okay. There was one I liked a lot where we had to read aloud the story about a certain kind of insect, and the story was filled with interesting facts about the insect. What was the name of it? It was a shield bug, or something like that. We really had a great time with it. Kids want to learn, they want to soak up things, they want to be surprised. The problem is worksheets are the polar opposite of surprise, mostly. I would sort of sigh inwardly sometimes, or maybe even sigh outwardly, as I handed these things out.
We can come back to that, but can I ask you some questions about the book’s construction? Did you set out to teach in order to write this particular book, or did the book emerge as a project after you had tried teaching for a while?
The idea for the book came out of being a parent first. And also being a student myself at an alternative high school called School Without Walls. The school that I attended was very, very permissive, and I didn't really have to do anything I didn’t want to do. So I had some theories and thoughts about education and I filled many, many pages with my thoughts and then I realized I was a complete impostor. It really is presumptuous to say what should or shouldn’t happen in a classroom if you haven’t put yourself in the vulnerable position of trying to teach something. So I thought, “How could I do that?” I could try to get my teaching certificate, but that would take years. Also, I don’t like those courses that you have to take and it just would be a whole huge production. Then I saw that Maine, like many states, had an almost desperate need for substitutes, because nobody wants to do it. Then I thought, “That's kind of interesting.” It’s interesting to enter a school as the lowest ranking person. Then, as soon as I started doing it I realized that that was the book, and not the theory. What we need to know is what goes on in classrooms. We need a better idea of that, and that was what I was trying to supply.
Did it ever concern you that people might want more than that theory? Because the book is almost completely reportage with some reflection for sure, but no real overt analysis and obviously no concrete solutions.
It was something that I had done in Human Smoke. For Human Smoke I also had certain thoughts when I started to work on the book and then I took myself out of it as I wrote the book. In both cases what I felt was more interesting was to listen to the voices of the participants in the experience I was describing. I have written books that are very first-person, as you know, and I love doing that. I maybe love it too much, but sometimes it’s really exciting and illuminating to listen to how other people think out loud. In this book, the way the kids talked and what they wanted to talk about and how they wanted to disrupt the class, or how they wanted to help me do the right thing in the future was what I really loved about it. If they weren’t there to help me in my fumblings I would have crashed and burned even worse than I did.
Did you really crash and burn? The kids seemed so charmed by you throughout the book. I would have loved to have you as a teacher.
Some of them liked me, and I was so moved. There was a very smart, wise principal who gave a talk in the training sessions, who said, “There’s no greater pleasure at the end of the day than when a kid says, ‘You're my favourite teacher,’ or, ‘I hope you’ll come back.’” She was so right. Not everybody liked me. But what I did offer them was a break from their routine. The entertainment value of the substitute is, I would say, eighty percent of the whole experience for the kids. Here’s a new person, he looks totally different, he’s going to say the wrong thing, he’s not going to know where anything is in the class. The class is going to have to adapt to this new person. I think a lot of the kids really enjoyed that in different ways. Some knew that it was time for chaos, and some kind of took pity on me and gave me pointers.
I imagine you had to inform the schools that you were writing about them, but did you not use their real names? Or the teachers’ real names, or the kids’ real names?
Were you ever worried that some of the students, or teachers, or parents might know who you are and perhaps be concerned about the sexual nature of some of your work?
I certainly made no secret of the fact that I was a writer when I applied for the job, but I don’t think there was any interest in what I wrote. I have written all these different kinds of books. Once in a blue moon a kid would ask, “What kind of books do you write?” And I would generally stress the non-fiction. I would talk about the World War II book because people, in high school especially, people had to study World War II. Or I told them that I’d written about a guy who gets on an escalator and has to go out and buy a replacement pair of shoelaces, that kind of thing. Each book has its own gravitational field, so sometimes it’s better to not let worlds collide.
Were you carrying around a digital recorder through your days? Or furiously scribbling notes?
I recorded what happened every way I could. I used a little mini recorder as a backup and I wrote notes when the class was off on recess or at lunch. I typed notes, I didn’t scribble. Sometimes I just wrote notes if a computer was unavailable or something. At the end of the day, the most helpful thing was to stop on the way home, when I was really exhausted, and ask myself what had gone well and what hadn’t gone well. What interesting things had kids said? What stuck in my mind? I think, especially in the case of people who are figuring out how language works, who have just learned it, the interest lies in the specifics of how they talk. I felt I had a real responsibility to be as faithful to that as possible.
There’s a lot of talk, obviously, in the book. A lot of talk.
What do you think? Too much talk?
No, no, it’s just remarkable, especially when you’re with the youngest kids.
I do have a few thoughts sprinkled in the book here and there. I try to let the policy suggestions pop up when they came to me naturally, rather than start with a bunch of bullet points: “I think we need to do this…” But, of course, I have some conclusions. I don’t think there needs to be so much work, and I don’t see why all these elaborate vocabulary lists in all subjects are necessary. I think the school day could be cut in half, I really do, because nobody gets anything done after lunch. Lunch is really, really hard. Lunch is just pandemonium. What I didn’t really grasp before I started this is the level of endurance a child has to have to go through this level of regimentation and noise for this many years. The schools are loud. Children are loud. They're not just loud in my classes, they’re loud in all classes.
In order to keep them under control they have to be punished in various ways. There’s a lot of endurance and a lot of suffering going on. I think there has to be less school. I think teachers should be paid more. I’m not saying substitutes because I really had no training and I was perfectly happy to be paid anything, because it was such an enormous privilege and pleasure to be part of what was going on, but the teachers—it’s an exhausting job, and they deserve to be paid better. That’s a very simple thing, but kind of essential. I don’t think there needs to be so many required subjects in high school. I think mainly what you need is for kids to be able to read. Forcing kids to write elaborate, literary critical essays about writing doesn’t really help them to be better writers, so I would just toss the standard essay form out the window. If kids had real problems reading, I would have them listen audio books and podcasts.
Would you toss out the iPads? I haven’t been in a classroom in years and I was shocked, in the book, at the prevalence of them at all levels. That seems to get under your skin a lot as well.
Many times I was grateful that there were iPads in a classroom, especially in the remedial classes where some of the students were essentially on strike. They had decided not to do any work in that class that year. What are they going to do? Otherwise, it’s sort of enforced idleness, so the iPad was a window on the world of things they were interested in—trucks, shopping for clothes, whatever it was. That’s not a bad thing because in the old days they would have just, I don’t know what. I remember paperclips and rubber bands, using paper clips as weapons. I got hit in the nose with a paper clip, left this sort of weird C shape on my nose for awhile.
In some ways the iPad is great, and in other ways it’s used as a punishment. They say if you fall behind in your assignments we’re going to take this thing away from you, or we’re going to restrict it, we’re going to make it less fun for you. That part seemed not right. And of course, with any piece of machinery, it breaks down, the Wi-Fi goes down. All in all I would say it’s not a bad thing. I don’t think it’s the end of the world to have glowing screens in classes.
The whole thing is so much more complicated now. YouTube has changed the way kids behave—there’s no particular awe of a teacher now. There’s no feeling that teachers hold this preserve of knowledge within them that only they can impart because if you want to learn anything, you can just learn it. Somebody’s explained it on a YouTube video, there’s a book that’s downloadable, there’s dozens of e-How things written. iPads are part of that, but we’re right at the moment where the ice on the river is cracking and teachers don’t really how to balance themselves on the floes.
You say near the beginning of the book that the idea of being in front of a class of kids scared you. What scared you?
Being in a class with that many young people, and being physically there in front of them is an intimidating thing, because you know they’re judging you. They have nothing to go on except that they happen to know that substitutes don’t make very much money and are kind of ridiculous. They’re the fools of the educational system; that’s their role. They're there to cause laughter. It’s a difficult position to put yourself in, but that’s the challenge. How do you become real before this class in a way that they might find there are things that I tell them that they’re happy to know. There were a couple moments where I thought, “Oh god, I’ve actually taught them something.” Not something that was in the sub plans. I think it was in kindergarten. I talked about [how] rocks became shiny? I just explained how a rock tumbling machine worked. They were really, really interested in that.
That girl had her rock book too, which I think everyone loved.
Yeah, she was so happy to have this possession. That was the other thing that struck me over and over again—how deep the need was that each kid have something special. I really felt sorry for some of the kids who just—like this one kid who said, “I suck at everything.” As somebody who doesn’t have a singing ability, or reading ability, or a joking ability… If you feel you have nothing, school is just about the hardest experience anybody could imagine.
The book’s very funny and very buoyant, but at the same time there's a subtle current of threat, even violence, that runs throughout. There’s the high-school boy who had been in juvie, the kids that have been over-medicated... And that kind of reaches a sad crescendo in the last chapter. Did you feel that the schools you were in were more dangerous than the schools that your kids attended? Or were the students more fearful, or more on edge, than you might have expected?
I think that the district I taught in was a pretty typical borough district. The kids were by and large incredibly nice, even the bad ones. There were some kids who have been to juvie, or had emotional troubles. I think some kids were being driven a little nuts by school so then the parents panicked and they thought, “This is anxiety,” and they’ve taken their kid to a doctor, and the doctor then prescribes a powerful pill, and that pill then becomes part of the problem. It’s just the nature of parental over-involvement, but it’s all because school is requiring too much. Requiring more mindless work than they’re willing to do. They look at this long list of key vocabulary words or math exercises and they say, “No.” That is not an irrational response. That is a rational response, but it gets them into terrible trouble, and they begin to be resentful. I just wish that the schools would relax a little and run headlong in the other direction.
Do you have hope of that? Is that even possible?
I just think that what the world needs is more lived-through sense of what these days are like. That’s why I wrote the book the way I did. I don’t expect that anyone will read it all the way through because it’s a long book, but maybe your kids are in elementary school, so just read the elementary school chapters. Maybe your kids are having trouble in high school, so read those, and then ask yourself, is this really what is best for my child? I’m not saying that my book will do a huge thing, but I just feel that it might be a contribution to the general swirl of debate about all these policies. The debate is happening without listening to the kind of interesting chaos that is actually going on in the classroom. The constant interruptions. The PA system. The jumping from class to class. The pulling of kids out of class to be tested. I think the only way to talk about what should happen is for people to feel their way through what is happening.
At the end of the book, there’s a giddy paragraph in which you talk about how much you’ve loved the experience and the kids. Would you go back and teach again? Even as a sub?
I would love to teach again. I just don’t know what people will think, having seen I’ve written this book. But sometime in the future I would love to teach. I have a hard time teaching college kids because they basically want me to teach writing, and I’m very private about writing.
You’ve never taught creative writing, right?
A little bit. I taught a writing class in Singapore this year. I also talked to people in Singapore about their school experiences, and it’s not the direction that we necessarily want to go into in this country. They were up until one in the morning doing their homework—it’s ridiculous.
How did you end up in Singapore?
I was invited and I went. I was invited to be writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University.
I imagine you’ve been invited to lots of places to teach writing?
I have been invited, and I don’t normally do it because I think it messes with a writer’s head. Writing is so personal, so I’ve avoided it, really. But this Singapore opportunity seemed really interesting because it was a whole different culture, and I didn’t know what kind of English they would speak. There’s something called Singlish, and it’s a very multi-lingual society. All that interested me so I decided to do it. I’m hoping I’ll be able to teach K-12 again, somehow, because I’ve learned so much. I learned about life in this intense way that I’m so grateful for. I understand why teachers become teachers. It’s because every moment is unpredictable. What a child will say is just completely from left field, and delightful. Partly I’m reliving some of the pleasure of being a parent. It’s a lot of fun to see people grapple with the most difficult thing any human being will ever learn, which is how to speak a language. They mostly have learned it outside of school. But then these schools kind of glue on all the rest of the learning, and codify it and test for mastery and all that.
I think anybody who wants to make a policy recommendation should work as a substitute teacher. First of all, they’re needed. You know you’re providing a service. If you have an opinion and you want to write an op-ed piece, become a fourth-grade substitute teacher and come back and start talking. I’d love to hear it.