Class Act

When you finish Nicholson Baker’s seven-hundred-plus-page tome devoted to a day-by-day, minute-by-minute account of his several-week stint as a substitute teacher in rural Maine, you will be exhausted by the accumulation of minutiae, irritated by the endlessly distracted chatter, and numbed by the sheer relentlessness of human interaction in large groups: You will, in a word, have been schooled. There is a wide variety among books about education; the lofty view engages pedagogy and policy, while a subgenre with long-standing currency offers first-person narrative—fictional and factual—from idealistic teachers. Decades ago, Bel Kaufman’s popular novel Up the Down Staircase, based on her experiences in New York City schools, was heralded as the book that definitively described what went on in classrooms (and, more importantly, in the hallways). And just this year, former executive Ed Boland published The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School. Like the dozen or so similar efforts in the intervening years, these books threaded some comedy, some dismay, and a good deal of compassion through essentially diagnostic chronicles, ones aimed at suggesting remedies to the dilemmas posed by mass education.

Baker is having none of that. Very much in the mode of his trademark pointillist style, he offers a virtual transcription of each of his twenty-eight days in a range of schools and grades—beginning with the phone call from the district dispatcher and often ending in the parking lot as the buses gun their engines before transporting the students to their homes. In between, he includes what must be every lesson, conversation, and conflict that has transpired—some days take up nearly thirty pages. Unlike typical books by teachers, this one offers scant insights into big topics like social class or disruptive students and really no prescriptions for overall “change”; nor is there the troubled kid who is either saved or lost and whose ups and downs provide a convenient narrative arc. A few brief yet evocative recollections of his own school days aside, Baker’s rigorous exercise hails from the experimental territory of works like Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a book that consists of absolutely everything the French author observed over the course of a weekend while sitting in a café.

The dauntingly meticulous detail that Baker amasses—dialogue among students, teachers, and the author might constitute well over two-thirds of the book—prompts the question of how, sans a tape recorder, this was achieved. He portrays himself as being so harried in the classroom that he surely couldn’t have paused to take notes there. But if invention has supplemented his mnemonic powers, it does so not to serve the purposes of storytelling, but rather to convey a maddening sense of chaotic, trivial, and directionless communication. Part of this reflects the drive-by nature of the daily curriculum sequence (“antebellum reform, suicide, Hitler Youth, more antebellum reform, and amateur genetics, all in six and a half hours”), but it’s also a convincing representation of uncontrolled socializing. When Baker asks the eighth grader who’s jabbing another student with a ruler, “What is the problem?,” the kid replies that he has ADHD and “my pills begin to wear off around now.” While that disorder certainly troubles many individual students, the flow of collective talk in the classroom also amounts to a kind of choral hyperactivity. Several ongoing conversations veer off from the lesson at hand, as gossip, complaints, reprimands, and requests for bathroom visits all intersect in dizzying fashion. Baker distills the gabfest to convey its agitated ping-ponging, and he no doubt delights in accentuating its Dada-like incoherence. Listen to some seventh graders while they supposedly review plant taxonomy:

“I don’t know,” said Brock. “I was telling her I didn’t want to do stuff and she got mad at me.”

“Gymnosperm,” said Sunrise. “Gym-no-sperm.”

“You’ve got a lot of energy today,” I said.

Georgia was dancing and poking at Perry.

“That’s my anger,” said Georgia.

“Where’s your chair?”

“A ghost stole it.”

If there is any constant element or theme that emerges from Baker’s hectic, draining, yet exhilarating days (“If I were a real teacher, I would go completely nuts. I love them”), it would be noise. Indeed, we come to understand that it’s the sheer sensory impact of the near-constant din that left the most enduring impression on the author, inspiring him to employ the kind of nervy figuration he’s noted for in his fiction, particularly the recent House of Holes, in which he contrived fanciful descriptions for sex acts such as “She twizzled her riddler.” In the classroom, “the noise was moving and growing,” the “noise was amazing,” “a sudden coruscation of sonic energy”; it’s a “verbal jungle,” where “the noise was like orange marmalade” or a “typhoon” or “a massive molten fondue.” Even amid this cacophony, the novelist also remains alert to the sounds within the Sound—the “general zippage of backpacks,” the expensive pencil sharpener that’s “higher pitched than the middle-school sharpener.” Baker is always shushing his charges, whether they’re first graders or high schoolers, and students are always shushing one another. Or he’s taking names, the ultimate sign of the substitute’s impotence: “I’ve got a clipboard . . . and I’m going to write down anyone’s name who is disturbing the peace and tranquility of this wonderful class.” One teacher advises him to avoid using the word substitute because it shows that “you have identified yourself with that role, and that undermines your authority.” Nevertheless, he keeps using it, and anyway, these kids aren’t about to be fooled by linguistic games. He does discover, though, that there are two things that gain quiet attention in all grades of all the schools he visits: “The Pledge of Allegiance, and fiction read aloud.”

Crawford Learmonth/Flickr.
Crawford Learmonth/Flickr.

Baker presents himself as an impartial witness, but his account isn’t entirely free of opinion. In the midst of these calibrated renderings of hubbub, he brings his acute intellect to bear on small-bore (the diminutive has always been the arena for his virtuosity) issues of pedagogy. For instance, he wonders about the efficacy of teaching the parts of speech to first graders. The lesson, he observes, “spread confusion and jitteriness” among the children, and just what good does this classifying do: “Adjective—what an unlovely word for something juicy and squeezable and wild and elusive and fungible and adamantine and icy-blue.” Or there’s the time he has to show Auschwitz: Death Camp to “choiceless, voiceless high school kids at eight-thirty on a Monday morning, in connection with a compare-and-contrast media-studies essay assignment.” Exiting the classroom, two tenth graders, Chelsea and Madonna, take up a cheerleading chant: “H! O! L! O! C-A-U-S-T, YEAH!” Baker refrains from obvious judgment and instead takes wry solace in the fact that “at least they could spell it.”

It’s early March when Baker begins his twenty-eight-day spell and early June when he wipes his last whiteboard. But the book—organized into an equal number of daily sections—doesn’t allow the reader to rest on the author’s numerous days off. Baker has likely chosen this structure to heighten the nonstop intensity of the job, as if to pack a school year’s worth of weariness into five school weeks. It’s like he’s the Jeanne Dielman of the recess yard. You move through this stretch of time with a growing sense of foreboding before turning the final page of each chapter, only to find that another predawn call from the district office awaits. On a day fairly early in the book, you learn, after several pages of attendance taking, iPad glitches, and stern admonitions, that it’s only 8:48 in the morning. It’s enough to make you weep. A slender counterpoint to this despair can be found in Baker’s memories of his own education, one marked by boredom and ponderous instructors but also charged with real transformation. He is especially grateful to the English teacher who had him build a scale model of the Globe Theatre instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird. And even though they didn’t read any Shakespeare either, that teacher, he recalls, was “the best . . . I had, and he changed my life.”

Of course, the aspiration to be such a figure for a young person often spurs the decision to become a teacher (if the vigorous derision by right-wing politicians weren’t enticement enough); that aspiration is also the narrative engine behind many first-person teacher accounts. Those stories begin in hope and frequently end in measured disappointment. (“I was ready to change lives as a teacher,” writes Ed Boland; then he finds “Mr. Boland is a faggot” scrawled on the chalkboard.) Baker knows he’s not going to change anyone’s life, at least not as a sub, and not over the course of a few weeks. Baker’s candor about his approach is bracing even as it smacks not a little of a writer’s self-assigned stunt. He is quite aware that he’s only playing a teacher, and an ineffectual one at that; his call for silence delivered “in a ship captain’s voice” might have shocked and awed seventh graders in the ’50s, but in this classroom it’s just another shard of noise.

The performance in the classroom is performed again by Baker’s sometimes fussily reportorial prose and his book’s overdetermined structure. His novelistic impulse—to shape a text into an aesthetic statement—seems to surpass any desire to speak directly about schools in general and the classroom experience in particular. Substitute shares more kinship with Perec, William Gaddis (JR especially), and even Gertrude Stein than with any earnest I-only-am-escaped-from-second-period-to-tell-thee tale. This is probably not a volume that will be noticed by policy makers or education professionals. But the reader diligent enough to endure the quotidian reruns—the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee almost every morning, the “verbal jungle” of ceaseless kid-yammer—will discover themselves in possession of potentially edifying information. Repetition, after all, in both its tedious and revelatory guises, has been the essential educational mode for centuries. Baker’s accretion of closely tracked ticks on that round, white clock above the classroom door conveys to bored, aching heads exactly what it feels like to teach and to learn in an American school. Just in case you have forgotten.

Albert Mobilio’s book of short fiction Games and Stunts is forthcoming from Black Square Editions.