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Nicholson baker goes back to school in ‘substitute’

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker, Blue Rider Press, 719 pages, $30. The author’s own explanation couldn’t be improved upon: “this book is a moment-by-moment account of the twenty-eight days I spent as the lowest-ranking participant in American education: a substitute teacher. I taught all ages, from kindergartners to twelfth graders and all required subjects – reading, writing, math, social studies, and science – plus a few electives here and there like metal tech.

I taught honors students and students in special-ed classes – about a thousand children in all. I didn’t have a teaching certificate, and I’d never taught in a primary or secondary school, but that didn’t matter – all you need (in Maine, where he subbed) is a high school diploma, a clean criminal record and a willingness to tolerate your own ineptitude.

“I sought out the teaching job” he writes “because I wanted to know what life in the classroom is really like.”

Who doesn’t these days? Is there anyone of good will who reads stories about 21st century education and the young people it gives us who DOESN’T want to know what the devil is going on?

To whom are we leaving this world? And how did they get that way? What do they know? Who taught them? And how?

The usual books, says Baker – a polymath raised in Rochester – leave critical stuff out, notably “a lived through sense of how busy and complicated and weird and long every school day is: how many ups and downs there are, and how exhausting – and sometimes entertaining – every school day is for students and teachers both.”

A brilliant idea – especially when you consider it wasn’t just a brilliant idea for a long feature by a professional journalist for the New York Times or Atlantic Monthly but for one of the most extraordinary and always surprising writers we have, the singular and edgy humanist who gave us “The Anthologist,” “Human Smoke,” “Vox,” “House of Holes,” “Double Fold” and “U and I.”

The world we discover inside the walls of schools is of kids overwhelmed with homework and social media, of some kids overmedicated too.

Too long a book, you say? Not for how much Baker cares about his subject and has to say. A marvel of our literary life.

– Jeff Simon

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