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, daily lessons on everything from geology to metal tech to the Holocaust to kindergarten show-and-tell as the author 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.”
I’ve had this book since September, and just cannot make myself finish it. Baker may be “one of the most inventive and remarkable writers of our time,” but this book is neither inventive nor remarkable.
If I wanted to hear a play-by-play of every single minute of a substitute’s day, I would just talk to my mom, who can talk to me face-to-face and actually make a story interesting. She substitutes quite a bit, and tends to tell detailed stories, but she has a knack for storytelling and pulling out the interesting parts of the day. She focuses on one or two kids and tells me what she thought of them in depth and why she thought they weren’t doing well or, in some cases, how sorry she feels for them just from the little she heard about their home life. She humanizes them. Baker tries, but he falls short.
The book is organized into chapters, each of which summarizes one day as a substitute. Every single chapter consists of verbatim conversations, Baker’s thoughts about feeling tired and inadequate, and near word-for-word lessons that Baker taught or heard. (Did he just record and transcribe his days as a substitute, and send that to his editor??) If I wanted that, I’d substitute myself. I’ve been through elementary and middle school; I know what classrooms are like.
With this book, I think Baker was trying to show just how bogged down students feel by school. In the schools he was at, each student was issued an iPad in order to more easily turn in homework or play educational games during down time. But there were a lot of technological malfunctions that resulted in kids sitting around for long stretches of time. There were intellectual gaps that made it difficult to teach to a level everyone could understand. There were seemingly pointless assignments — busywork — that not even Baker wanted to do, much less the students. If our school system is this frustrating for a substitute, Baker tries to say, imagine how much more so it is for kids who must spend 13 years there.
While I understood Baker’s goal with the book, it just was not enjoyable to read. It was boring. I found myself skimming page after page, skipping ahead in the book to see if it got any better. Even then, I could only force myself to finish about half the book. It just wasn’t interesting. I definitely think Baker has more than enough material to make an interesting book, but he should have used the book as it is now as a resource. He should have tailored the stories a bit more, and tried to create some semblance of a story line from the things he experienced and the kids he met. I gave a rave review to a similar book a few months ago, and wish Substitute had been as good as it was. Besides the fact that the other book was written by a full-time teacher, the only difference, really, was that the other one was organized into chapters according to theme, not days. It made the book a lot easier to take in.
I may not give up on Baker completely, because he has written several other books (mostly novels) that seem to have good ratings. In fact, I think Substitute is his lowest-rated book on Goodreads. However, I wouldn’t recommend this book at all, unless you have insomnia and need something ridiculously boring to lull you to sleep tonight.
I received this book from Blue Rider Press through NetGalley for free in exchange for this honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.