Going to School with a Thousand Kids
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**A New York Times Bestseller**

“May be the most revealing depiction of the American contemporary classroom that we have to date." —Garret Keizer, The New York Times Book Review
Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, in pursuit of the realities of American public education, signed up as a substitute teacher in a Maine public school district.

In 2014, after a brief orientation course and a few fingerprinting sessions, Nicholson Baker became an on-call substitute teacher in a Maine public school district. He awoke to the dispatcher’s five-forty a.m. phone call and headed to one of several nearby schools; when he got there, he did his best to follow lesson plans and help his students get something done. What emerges from Baker’s experience is a complex, often touching deconstruction of public schooling in America: children swamped with overdue assignments, over­whelmed by the marvels and distractions of social media and educational technology, and staff who weary themselves trying to teach in step with an often outmoded or overly ambitious standard curriculum.
In Baker’s hands, the inner life of the classroom is examined anew—mundane work­sheets, recess time-outs, surprise nosebleeds, rebellions, griefs, jealousies, minor triumphs, kindergarten show-and-tell, daily lessons on everything from geology to metal tech to the Holocaust—as he and his pupils struggle to find ways to get through the day. Baker is one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time, and Substitute, filled with humor, honesty, and empathy, may be his most impressive work of nonfiction yet.


“By far the most accurate portrayal to date of the modern American classroom….With his fresh set of eyes and attention to detail, Baker reveals the American classroom to be fundamentally broken, held together by the students’ resilience and the teachers’ sheer will. Substitute is an eye-opening indictment of our educational technocracy.”
—Mike St. Thomas, Commonweal

“Baker has a perfectly pitched ear and a high emotional IQ, and with them captures the flow of banter, amusement, squabbling, dire boredom, perfectly pitched demonic speech, small lurches of actual learning, and scenes of minor heartbreak that fill a school day.”
—William Finnegan, The New York Review of Books

“A finely detailed chronicle…[Baker’s] ideas are provocative.”
The New Yorker

“[T]here are few substitutes for Substitute. Excepting those accounts that point to larger social injustices, Baker's book may be the most revealing depiction of the American contemporary classroom that we have to date.”
—Garret Keizer, The New York Times Book Review

“Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are…a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard…It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s pages fly by…the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends.” 
Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review
“This is the only way a reader could truly grasp the monotonous, hectic, and exhausting world of substitute teaching. Baker masterfully uses [Substitute] to place the reader directly in the action and into a world that few are given the chance to see once they leave school.”
—Bridey Heing,

Substitute is a surprisingly hefty contribution to the life-of-a-teacher genre…chronicled with the moment-by-moment vividness that Baker has made one of his trademarks….his sub’s perspective on some very average schools delivers a message Americans still need to hear: K–12 education, as the province of children and mostly women, regularly inspires panic, but all too rarely receives the serious, sustained attention it actually merits….His book is a reminder that kids and teachers are often in the same boat, and both deserve better.”
—Sara Mosle, The Atlantic

“Baker clearly loves kids, and the funniest, most poignant pages of Substitute capture their intelligence, humor, sweetness and exasperating energy.”
The Washington Post

Substitute is a fun read….a worthwhile and entertaining read for anyone who has ever gone to school or knows anyone in school. Pages are filled with kid dialogue and great sentences and pithy moments.”
Christine Brunkhorst, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“An illuminating snapshot of public education in America today.”
The Boston Globe

“Substitute is a rare thing, a book that takes a close look at youth culture and the education system…The end result is surprisingly exhilarating….Dialogue pops with non sequiturs and constantly veers off in absurd directions….the surreality coalesces into something magic, something approaching a metaphor that hints at the glorious madness, struggle and possibility of those strange, raw years.”
—Lisan Jutras, The Globe and Mail

“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?…A brilliant idea…The world we discover inside [Substitute] is of kids overwhelmed with homework and social media, of some kids overmedicated too….A marvel of our literary life.”
Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“Ever since his ingenious 1988 debut novel, The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker has been a writer I take on trust. Substitute rewards that trust….Baker makes English’s idiosyncrasies dizzyingly fresh. His wacky descriptive gifts are also on brilliant display….a sobering reminder of the minefield mentality that dominates our schools [yet]…Ultimately, Baker’s book is laced with exhilaration.”
Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

“Baker effectively portrays the everyday din of grinding pencil sharpeners and screaming students. His book abounds in artful observations and snippets of dialog with children, and in this compares favorably to a classic of the genre: Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren. But it is also studded with subtle insights. He writes of the apparent futility of schooling, the “valueless, instantly forgettable knowledge” that children are expected to absorb, and bemoans the educational culture of assessment tools and checklists. VERDICT: Recommended.”
—Seth Kershner, Library Journal

“Nicholson Baker has produced both a tribute to and an indictment of American education, and he has done so with a winning blend of mordant wit and effulgent idealism. He hasn’t quite worked out how to fix the system, but he has diagnosed its many ills and, equally, recognized how much of value survives even in impossible classrooms with impossible kids. Substitute is both intimate and inclusive, and it is written with brio.”
—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award winner and author of Far from the Tree

“Nicholson Baker has given us a funny and heartbreaking close-up of life in today’s Amer­ican schools. Nice kids and well-meaning teachers are trapped in a boring, intellectually stifling system: endless vocabulary lists unconnected to central ideas, ‘writing’ assignments that are basically fill-in-the-blanks, constant surveillance to prevent kids from escaping into video games, pervasive concentration on taking, recording, and retaking tests. Surely we can do better than this.”
—Nel Noddings, Lee Jacks Professor of Child Education Emerita, Stanford University, and author of A Richer, Brighter Vision for American High Schools
“Equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, Substitute provides an eye-opening look at the challenges within the American public education system. Rich with empathy and nearly impossible to put down, Substitute is a must-read for parents, educators, and anyone else who cares about the future of our children.”
—Katie Hurley, LCSW, author of The Happy Kid Handbook

“In a weird and wild twenty-eight days, Nicholson Baker faithfully reports on the aspirations, tedium, humanity, and chaos brewing in American schools. Substitute is a wry, riveting, and potent account, where little adornment is needed. Baker understands that there is no more telling way to reveal the current and future state of our society than showing how millions of our schoolchildren spend their days.”
—Ed Boland, New York Times–bestselling author of The Battle for Room 314

“Baker’s signature wordplay and inventive voice shine through…ultimately [he] forges a gripping and indispensable time-capsule of teaching and learning in the twenty-first century.”
Publishers Weekly


***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2016 Nicholson Baker

Day One. Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Lasswell High School, Special Ed Math


The call came in at five-forty in the morning, plinking from under my pillow. Would I be interested in filling in for a day for a math teacher named Mrs. Prideaux, in a resource room at the high school? I said I’d give it a shot, and I kissed my sleepy wife and took a shower and put on my good shoes and a sport jacket and drove for a long time in the dark, over hilly rural roads, eating a toasted waffle. There had been a sudden thaw overnight, and the predawn traffic moved slowly through the side-sliding snowmist.

The buses, about twenty of them, were already queuing up as I reached the turn into the parking lot, where a sign announced that Lasswell High School was a tobacco-free area. I parked in the back, near the athletic field, a blank white plain with low shapes of cold fog slipping through the goalposts.

Hundreds of slow-moving, sleepy students were getting off buses and filing into a pair of side doors, supervised by several silent adults with clipboards. The idling engines of the buses made a heavy, steady noise; they exhaled plumes of exhaust, like cows waiting to be milked. There was a big stop sign on the door, ordering visitors to check in at the front office.

I told one of the grownups that I was a substitute and asked where the office was. He pointed down a hall. “Thank you for helping out,” he said. I waved.

It was warm and brightly fluorescent inside—not loud. Students with expressionless early-morning faces were leaning against lockers or kneeling on the floor going through their backpacks or hugging in corners. One of the secretaries, a small, pleasant, quick-moving woman in a gray cocktail dress, gave me a folder full of papers and a lanyard with a tag on it that said SUBSTITUTE, and she took me to room 18 and unlocked the door. It was a small hot space, with about ten desks, some bookshelves, some cabinets, and a whiteboard. Taped to the wall was an information sheet on attention deficit disorder. The walls were cinderblock, painted a cream color.

“Here are your attendance sheets,” the secretary said. “I’ve highlighted the different blocks that you have. All you need to do is mark them absent or tardy and then have a student bring them down to the office.” There were two lunches, she explained, and I had Lunch B, which began in the middle of block 4, at 11:49 a.m.

I thanked her and she went away. I sat down at the desk. There was a SpongeBob jar on it filled with pencils and dry-erase markers, and piles of student papers and worksheets and abandoned notebooks. A teacher— plump and capable looking—stopped by to introduce herself.

“Anything I should know?” I said.

“There are some challenging kids, because this is all special ed,” she said. “But Helen’s had subs before and it goes pretty well. I’m close and happy to help if I can.” She went away. I opened the folder and read Mrs. Prideaux’s sub plan.

Six electric bongs came over the PA system, followed by a longer boop, and then a secretary’s voice came on. “Good morning, please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.” I stood in the empty room, but I didn’t speak, because there was nobody in the room with me yet. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” said the secretary over the loudspeaker, “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Please pause for a moment of silence.” There was a moment of silence, another electric boop, and then she said, “Thank you, and have a great day.” School was in session. It got very quiet. I had no students.

After a long time, the electric bongs bonged again, and it was the beginning of block 1. A girl walked in. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” she said. She dropped her backpack by a desk. I asked her her name and checked it off on a list. She left. A boy came in and sat down and opened a container of diced fruit. I checked his name off on the attendance sheet. Another kid came in and began looking through the cupboards, opening them and closing them rapidly.

“How are you doing?” I said.

“Good,” he said. In one of the cupboards he found a bag of cheese- flavored popcorn. He sat down.

“What’s your name?” “Jack.”

“Hi, Jack, good to meet you. I’m Nick. Are you in this class?”

“No, but I usually come over here from across the hall and do work.” He sat and ate popcorn, blinking sleepily.

I asked him what kind of math he was supposed to be working on. “I’m doing something else, I’m working on history.” He said he was researching the Vietnam War.

“Interesting,” I said. “So who started it?”

He didn’t answer.

“Hard to say, right?” I said. “Goes way back into the mists of time. People say Kennedy wanted to get us out of Vietnam. Do you think he did?”

“I think so,” said Jack.


“People seem to wander in and out of this room,” I said to Jack.

“Yeah, they do.”

“So what do you like better, math or history?”

“Probably history.”

More students stopped by the door, saw that I was a substitute, and left to prowl the halls in search of friends. A girl wrote something on a Post-it note and asked me to sign it. It was permission for her to go to the library.

“Should I have signed that?” I asked Jack.

“Probably not,” he said.

I checked off some more names. They were juniors, it turned out. Some, who were taking Algebra II, were supposed to log on to a piece of software called MobyMax and take a test on their “core curriculum standards.” Some took it, some didn’t.

The bonger bonged again and some new students showed up. These were chattier. People were waking up now. I met a kid named Clyde who was interested in trucks and wore a plaid shirt and a baseball hat. He said he made good money by plowing people’s driveways. His grandfather had gotten him a truck which was completely rusted out—you could see the road through the floor, he said, and it wouldn’t pass inspection—so his father found him another truck on Craigslist for fifteen hundred dollars that he was happy with. Clyde told me that it was tricky to plow driveways right now, because the ground was starting to thaw. If it’s a paved driveway, then you can just drop the plow down on the asphalt, but if it’s a dirt driveway, you don’t want to rip up the surface by plowing too deep. “You get a feel for it after a while,” he said.

Another kid named Shamus came in, a quietly amused young man, also wearing a baseball hat, who turned out to have a girlfriend named Rianne. Rianne was round-faced and pale and wore very tight black pants and a black-and-pink striped shirt and she worked at McDonald’s. She’d worked until three in the morning the night before, closing the store. “I don’t sleep,” she said. That was how she got through high school, she said, by not sleeping. She leaned against Shamus with her eyes closed, while Shamus looked at videos on his iPad.

Shamus’s friend Artie appeared—a loud, jokey storyteller, who liked to get as close as he could to dropping the f-bomb without actually dropping it: “I was like “What the fffffff . . . udge?” He was stocky and handsome, and he spent his time trying to find good-looking bathing beauties on his iPad from websites that weren’t blocked. He was supposed to be doing a geometry worksheet.

Ms. Laronde, a young “ed tech”—a teaching assistant—came in to help Artie. She reminded him of the difference between complementary and supplementary angles. In a soft, faintly ironic voice, Ms. Laronde questioned and coaxed and prodded and finally got him to write his name at the top of the worksheet. That was all the geometry he did—he wrote his name. Besides that he told stories and said unexpected things. “My horrible fear is when you wake up and one of your eyes is swollen shut,” he suddenly announced. “I’m probably going to die at the

age of forty-five.”

Ms. Laronde left to coach other students with Individualized Education Plans and Artie and Shamus began talking about milk. Artie said, “Boobies, cow boobies, that’s where the milk comes from.” He told a story about his little brother, who was seven. They were listening to Eminem and his little brother said, “Shut off those nigga beats.” Artie said, “Those aren’t nigga beats, those are cracker beats.” Later Artie’s father came home and asked what they’d been doing. His little brother said, “We were listening to cracker beats.”

The sub plan said I was supposed to discourage a tall, wiry kid named Lucas from playing on his iPad. I tried. Lucas and his friend, who wasn’t on the attendance sheet but who was allowed to visit, according to Mrs. Prideaux, were interested in watching YouTube videos of pickup trucks driving around in fields of mud—a sport called mudding. Some of the mudding trucks were “duallies”—trucks with two pairs of tires in the back. One truck was notable in that it had dually tires in the front and the back. “How can you even steer with duallies in the front?” Lucas’s friend asked. They tipped their iPads in each other’s direction: “Whoa, that’s a nice truck!”

“That’s badass, I have to say,” said Artie, leaning over.

“Check this out,” said Lucas.

A huge wave of mud spewed out from monster tires. “Oooh, nice,” they said.

Adam, who had chewed-up fingernails, showed me a picture on his iPad of his four-wheeler. It had two speeds. You’re supposed to drive up a hill in first, he said, but he’d had to shift to second to make progress. “It isn’t dangerous unless you’re stupid,” he added.

The electric bongs happened again, and it was a new block. A sad girl showed up. She’d been crying because her boyfriend had broken up with her. Rianne hugged her and stroked her cheek. Shamus said, “I could put up my kickstand for you.” Then, imitating a teacher, he said, in a low voice, “That is not acceptable!”

“I’ll tell you what’s not acceptable,” said Artie. “What if I whipped down my pants and took a shit on your grave?”

Shamus and Rianne laughed. Later Rianne tried to take a nap lying on Shamus’s lap.

Another teaching assistant showed up for a little while—very young, a recent graduate of the high school. He’d grown a goatee to look older than the students. He joshed with the young men about trucks, about jobs, about snow plowing, and about somebody’s older brother. His name was Mr. C.

When the mudding videos got too loud, I told the trucker boys to turn them down—and they did. They were, in a way, polite. Every so often I would prod a student to work on math.

“Math is like my worst subject,” one of them said. “It’s just stupid. I don’t understand it. I hate it. It’s a total waste.”

But one kid, Colin, with a wavy shock of hair, sat silently the whole time, earbuds in, listening to music, crouched over, doing homework, erasing and rewriting answers.

When I stood up, several people said, “You’re tall! How tall are you?”
The morning went by slowly. My head felt stuffed with cotton balls and I had trouble sitting up and looking authoritative. There was no coffee machine, so I sipped a Coke to stay alert. I sighed loudly at one point, and Clyde gave me a sympathetic look. “I hear you,” he said. “I feel your pain.”

The clock was an hour off because of daylight savings, which had just happened. “You’re lucky you weren’t here yesterday,” said Clyde. “Everybody was grumpy. People were standing in the hallway yelling—it was bad.”

Suddenly the bonger bonged for lunch. By the time I got out to the car I realized I didn’t have time to drive somewhere and buy a sandwich, so I ate three Blue Diamond almonds I found in my car and drank the rest of my Coke.

Back at my desk, I studied the sub plan for what was supposed to happen after lunch. A girl, Charlee, had written a paper, and I was supposed to help her finish her bibliography, which needed to have at least three sources in it. She was sitting, staring into space, listening to music, looking goth but neat. And bored.

“So, you’re working on a paper,” I said. Charlee nodded.

“What about the bibliography?” She sighed.

“What are you writing about?

“Oh, we had to write about an animal.”

“An animal! That’s pretty gripping, pretty interesting.”

“Isn’t it?” she said sarcastically.

“Of course it depends on the animal,” I said. “What did you choose?”

“The wolverine.”

“I thought that was a shoe,” I said.

“It could be a brand of shoe, but it’s a damn wolverine,” Charlee said. “I’ll show you.” She tipped her iPad toward me.

“Oh, it’s a small, friendly, furry creature,” I said.

“It’s like me,” said Charlee. “Small but hostile.”

Artie called out, “Girl, get your ass to work!”

She began talking to her friend about what they were doing after school: they both had orientation and training at a Hannaford supermarket, where they’d just gotten jobs.
I was also supposed to encourage a certain boy, Logan, to finish a “health assessment” on suicide. “He only has one section left!” said the sub plan.

I went over to him. “So you’re working on something about suicide?”

“Yeah.” Logan was a serious kid, in a gray, zipped-up hoodie, with short hair and black eyebrows.

“And you’ve got one section left?”

“Yeah, I’m not going to do that, that’s for extra credit.” He showed me what he’d done. He’d been given a transcript of an actual call to a suicide prevention unit in which a despairing man talked ramblingly about how he had no reason to live, and about how much he wanted to die. Logan had, as asked, highlighted the “warning phrases” of suicidality with a yellow highlighter.

“That’s quite an assignment,” I said.

Logan said, “Yeah, I know.”

“Well, you’re almost there, you’re on the home stretch, finish it up if you can.”

He began playing a video game on the iPad, in which two hoppy animated creatures leapt up and down on a mountain range. Then his iPad froze. “My iPad froze!” he said, indignantly.
And so the day ticked by. Nobody wreaked havoc or did anything too horrible. On the other hand, only a few students did anything that Lasswell High School would define as actual work. At a guess, I’d say that 1 percent of total class time—no, less than that—was taken up with algebra, geometry, health, history, language arts, or any other subject that the school was supposedly in the business of teaching. And yet, so what? I liked the kids and felt that given their forced idleness and the futility of their academic days, they were doing an impressive job of staying sane and keeping their senses of humor.

The means they had available to pass time productively had improved dramatically because of the iPad. In the old days, they would have made spitballs, or poked their neighbors—now they could watch mudding videos, which actually interested them, or take pictures of each other, or play chirpy video games. The iPad had improved their lives.

Nobody expected most of them to do academic work, it seemed, because long ago they’d been labeled as kids with “special needs”—even though in fact they were, judging by their vocabulary, their temperament, and their fluent way with irony, normal American high schoolers. They weren’t masterminds, but that wasn’t why they were in this room—they were here because they quietly refused to do work that they hated.

At the very end of the day, just before the bell rang, everybody gathered by the door. I began putting the computers away. (There were, in addition to the ubiquitous iPads, carts full of old Apple laptops.) Lydia, a girl with braces, in a pink sweatshirt, came in, very keyed-up and wild. She began throwing a pen around. I said, “Hey, hey, hey.”

“Stop it, or the substitute won’t come back,” said her friend Shelby.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “I enjoyed it.”

“See, he enjoyed it,” said Lydia.

I felt like a figure of fun, but not so like a figure of fun that I didn’t want to do it again. I hadn’t helped anybody learn anything, I’d just allowed them to be themselves; I was there for a day to ensure that room 18 didn’t descend into utter chaos. My role was to function as straight man, to give these kids the pleasure of avoiding meaningless schoolwork. And that was maybe a useful role.

The final six bells bonged and everybody surged out and the room was empty again. I wrote a note to Mrs. Prideaux saying that the kids had been good-natured and funny, and that I was grateful to have had a chance to fill in. As I was driving home, I remembered something Clyde, the snowplower, had said. “You’ve got your good kids and you’ve got your bad kids. And sometimes your bad kids can be your good kids.”

And that was the end of Day One.


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