By Nicholson Baker, from Substitute, an account of his experiences as a substitute teacher in Maine public schools in 2014. The book was published last month by Blue Rider Press. Baker is the author of ten novels.
Mrs. Browning, a fifth-grade teacher at Hackett Elementary School, had left two pages of instructions and a stack of worksheets for me on the desk. “Students know that you will be keeping track of their dojo points,” the instructions began. “No peanuts allowed in my room ever.”
A reading specialist dropped by to warn me that the class could be rowdy. “They have a lot of energy,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll put your thumb right down on them.”
Students began arriving and hanging up their backpacks. They were supposed to practice handwriting the letter p on a worksheet. I met Nash, Zeke, JoBeth, Rory, Danielle, Zoe, Carlton, Larissa, and two girls named Amber. There were twenty-two kids in all; the noise level rose with each new arrival. “Put your hair up, Zoe,” said Danielle. “I’m NOT PUTTING MY HAIR UP,” said Zoe, in a remarkably loud, penetrating voice. Nadia, an elegant, dark-browed girl wearing red lipstick, sighed sadly. “It’s usually crazy in the mornings,” she said to me. “Especially after St. Patrick’s Day.” I asked her how dojo points worked. “If they’re being crazy, write their name down, and put a check next to it meaning they lost a point.” Carlton was already being crazy, slamming his backpack around and making sudden screams and climbing on the chairs.
“Carlton, BE RESPECTFUL!” said Zoe.
“You’re going to be totally good,” I said to Carlton. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“I’m NOT PUTTING MY HAIR UP!” said Zoe.
“Okay, hello, everybody,” I said.
“GIRLS, GUYS, LISTEN!” Danielle shouted piercingly.
“Don’t shout,” I said to her. “As you can see, I’m not Mrs. Browning. I’m the sub, and I’m really hoping that you will use quiet, normal voices, and not shout, because it’s a lot easier and saner if we do that. I’ll write my name on the board, I’m Mr. Baker.”
“Mr. Baker, like bake me a cake.”
“Do you know Cassidy Baker?” asked Troy.
“Do you know Lance Baker?” asked Nicole.
“No.” I wrote my name on the whiteboard.
“That’s not a dry-erase marker!” said JoBeth.
“Oh no,” I said. I’d permanently defaced the whiteboard.
“It’s okay,” said JoBeth. “I know how to get rid of it!” She busily scrubbed my name with a paper towel and some water until it disappeared. Carlton handed me a green dry-erase marker. “I KNOW WHERE EVERYTHING IS!” he said at the top of his lungs.
“Okay, but one thing you know is the less shouting you do, the better,” I said. “How’s it going with the letter p? P is pretty important, p starts peace and quiet. Peas.” I couldn’t think of any others.
Someone was slamming around binders; someone else was grinding away on the mechanical pencil sharpener by the sink, sharpening his way through half the pencil.
“They’re supposed to be working silently,” said JoBeth.
“How often do you get a sub?” I asked Nash, who seemed rational and on the ball.
“Not that often, but when we do —” He shook his head. “Let me just say this before the day starts: Good luck.”
“Oh,” I said. “Maybe we’ll learn a few things and, you know, have some fun. The only thing I don’t like is shouting. How do you feel about shouting?”
“I’m not a big fan of it,” said Nash, “but sometimes I will, when I get too angry.”
The principal’s voice came over the PA system. “Good morning, please stand for the pledge.”
Everyone stood and turned, and then, instant uproar. The day before, it seemed, somebody had taken down the American flag and propped it in the corner, putting a small Irish flag in its place.
“WE NEED RESPECT FOR THE AMERICAN FLAG!” said Zoe.
But the pledge had already begun, and we took up the chant in progress: “ . . . indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” When it was over, the class launched into a second, singsong, recitation, with words taken from a poster that hung on the wall. “TODAY IS A NEW DAY,” the class said in unison. “I WILL ACT IN A SAFE AND HEALTHY WAY. I WILL DO WHAT I KNOW IS RIGHT. I WILL THINK BEFORE I ACT. I WILL TAKE CARE OF MYSELF, MY FRIENDS, AND MY SCHOOL. TODAY I WILL BE THE BEST THAT I CAN BE.”
“That’s inspiring,” I said when it was over.
“GUYS, BE QUIET!” screamed Zoe.
“Okay,” I said, “it’s nine o’clock, quiet down, do work.”
“No, it’s nine-oh-three,” said Ethan, and pointed at the clock.
“Nine-oh-three, thank you,” I said.
“If someone is being wild, you can just send him to Mr. Pierce,” said Larissa. “Yesterday was horrible.” Mr. Pierce was the school principal.
The class assignment, a carryover from the day before, was to write a few sentences about the weekend. Some kids had written more than a page and were done, others had written nothing. I paused in front of Toby, a boy with solemn eyes and round cheeks, who was running his hands through his hair. There was a blank piece of paper in front of him. “So what did you do this past weekend?” I asked him.
“Nothing,” Toby said.
“Did you eat a cheese sandwich?”
“No, I had a ham sandwich.”
“When you ate that first bite of ham sandwich, what did it taste like?”
“It tasted like ham.”
“That’s it! ‘I ate a ham sandwich. It tasted like ham.’ You are in good shape. Can you write that, please?”Toby started to write, then stopped. Each letter he wrote seemed to be spun out of an odd backward-circling motion.
We gathered for the morning meeting near the whiteboard. All the students sat on the floor. Nadia explained that they were supposed to read what they’d written.
Here’s what was going on in their weekend lives. JoBeth was learning to balance a sword on her head like her mom: “It’s fun, but you have to be very careful, or you’ll get stabbed badly.” Danielle went to a monster-truck rally and almost got a splatball egg at the mall. Sara made some origami figures. Nicole, Rory, and Troy played Minecraft; Nicole said there was a weird stalker guy following her around in the game. Carlton worked with his dad on his pinewood-derby car. Nash raced in a pinewood derby and came in second twice but seventh overall. Zeke said he was going to go to monster trucks with his dad, but his dad said it was sixty dollars just to get in, so his dad looked up the Harlem Globetrotters, and tickets for them cost three hundred dollars, so they went to The Lego Movie instead, and then after the movie they were going to go to the gun show but they didn’t. Zoe was going to get a new iPod but didn’t. Toby ate a ham sandwich. Pauline, who was shy, went to the science museum to celebrate her brother’s birthday, and a scientist rubbed a balloon on her head. Larissa was FaceTimed by two boys from class and then she whittled a stick with a knife for twenty minutes. Jess picked up her dog’s ashes and slept over at her friend’s and FaceTimed with two boys from class. Amber L. went to the doctor’s to be tested for strep throat. Amber S. got a new bike and learned that the Girl Scouts have sold more than a million boxes of cookies in the state of Maine. Ian went swimming at the YMCA. Ethan started to write a book about a girl who uncovers secrets about her family and brings an evil creature to life, and then he decorated a cake with a whale for his mom’s boyfriend, and afterward he learned that cake decorating was in his family on both sides: “I have cake decorating in my blood, basically,” he said. Amanda said the stove in her house caught fire and her brother helped her get out of the house. Nadia said she made a tunnel in a snowbank that was big enough for her to turn around inside.
“That was really great,” I said at the end. “A little loud, but great.”
We lined up for gym. As I was dropping them off to play kickball, Nadia, who had taken pity on me, said, “Mr. Baker, you look like somebody who would teach at the middle school, or high school.”
I told her I wrote books for a living.
She said, “If you need help with anything, I’m always here.”
I thanked her and went back to class to sit and drink coffee.
After gym everyone was irritable and full of resentments over the kickball game: the teacher had made several bad calls. I had Amanda, the paper passer, hand out a social-studies quiz on the points of the compass. They were supposed to define the following terms:
The sub plans said: “DO NOT HELP THEM! This is a test and I need to know if they know the answers.” Well, a handful of kids knew the answers, but most were mystified. Many did not know what a compass rose was, and others had no idea how to define the word north. I didn’t know how to define north myself. Sara remembered a directional mnemonic: Never Eat Soggy Waffles. Zeke changed it to Never Eat Soggy Whales. They all passed in their quizzes and I handed out a second social-studies worksheet, in which they were supposed to draw the map of an imaginary city, with a key to symbols used, and a compass showing which way north was. Ethan began drawing a circus. Rory embarked on a map of the world he’d made in Minecraft. Troy worked on a map of a place called Skull Country. The noise level swiftly rose to unimaginable heights, with shrill charges and countercharges flying around the room: WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU? GUYS, IT’S NOT RECESS! Ian, who Nash had told me got angry when it was supposed to be quiet and it wasn’t, became enraged. He went over to the trash can, furiously tore up several pieces of crumpled paper that he found within it, and threw them on the floor. Then he picked up the torn pieces and put them back in the trash can.
The reading specialist appeared at the door with a quizzical expression. I apologized for the madhouse. I felt sick with shame. “I’m going to help you out here,” she said. Suddenly her contralto voice boomed out. “I KNOW YOU CAN SHOW MR. BAKER WHAT YOU ARE NORMALLY LIKE,” she said. The class got a little quieter — not much. “You guys need to do what is expected of you!”
Nash said, “Some people are doing it and some people are not doing it.”
There was a scream of indignation from across the room.
“The people who are doing the right thing should continue to do the right thing, and other people will follow,” said the reading specialist.
I had them line up. Nicole and Carlton fought for position. “This is ridiculous!” I said. I told them they couldn’t leave for recess until they got quiet, which worked — taking away recess time was one of the school’s standard punishments. They began to file out. I stopped Nash and said, “Nash, if you only knew how loud your voice is.”
Nash looked sheepish. “I know. I wished you luck! I did. I get angry.”
Nadia stayed behind to offer counsel. “Usually if stuff gets this bad,” she said, “you have to go to the guidance counselor and have her talk to us. A lot of kids have anger issues.” She led me to the guidance counselor’s office, but the guidance counselor was busy talking to a parent. She then led me to the main office and pointed to a door. “Mr. Pierce is right through there,” she said. “He knows the school very well.”
I thanked her. “It must be hard for you,” I said.
“Some people get so frustrated that they end up acting crazy,” she said. “Like Ian. Sometimes he makes a sound like he’s a gorilla. And then other people get mad at him, when really he’s just frustrated.”
“You’ve been very helpful,” I said.
She went off to recess. I went to Mr. Pierce’s office and introduced myself. “I’m not controlling the class well,” I said. “They’re very loud.”
He nodded gravely. “They are very loud, yes,” he said.
“I just wondered if you could come down and talk to them.”
He said he would in a little while.
I sat at my desk, feeling guilty that the class had gotten so out of control that Ian had had to tear up the paper in the trash can. The sub plans said that after recess the class was supposed to work for half an hour on their mystery stories, critiquing one another’s work using a checklist, but they hadn’t finished their imaginary cities. Fortunately the imaginary-city task was supposed to be a two-day project.
The class came bouncing and shouting back in from recess, blinded by the bright snow. I had them take out their partly written mystery stories. Amber S. was writing about a theft at a chocolate shop. She was supposed to think about whether it contained the required elements: feelings of excitement and anxiety, a plot twist, conflict, and a surprise ending. “What genre do you write?” she asked me politely. Jess, a thin, sweet-faced girl with a pastel hairband, was busily writing down names of malefactors in the class and making dojo-point check marks beside them. “I have a headache because it’s so noisy,” she said.
Just before lunch, Mr. Pierce arrived, portly and frowning. He stood by the whiteboard and waited. The class became still and downcast. He spoke in a quiet voice. “You need to do what you know is right,” he said. “And if you don’t, you’ll spend the afternoon with me, so that others in your room can do what they know is right.” He let that sink in. “I already have a letter written,” he continued. “All that’s missing is your parents’ names and your name. Whoever comes down, I’ll fill out a letter, and I’ll send it home. And I’ll give a copy to Mrs. Browning tomorrow. So I’m all ready. I’m willing to have company. But I’d rather not have it. All I ask is for you to do what’s right. You’re good people and I know you can do it.”
Feeling duly chastised and contrite, we all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise. I went back and ate a second sandwich in my room, wondering whether this was the worst day of my life. When I picked the class up half an hour later, Jess said, “At lunch some kids were saying you looked like Santa. They say you’re going to give us presents. I was trying to stop them because it’s really rude.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I held my arms out. “NOW, OKAY, GUYS — TOTALLY QUIET! THIS IS SILENT READING.”
There was a moment of relative silence, broken by Zoe. “Get your butt out of my chair,” she said to Carlton.
“READ-uh!” screamed Danielle.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“Merry Christmas,” said Carlton. Zeke snickered.
“THAT’S SO RUDE, CARLTON!” said Jess.
And then I lost it. I got genuinely angry. “Just sit in your chairs and READ YOUR BOOKS. For God’s sake! It’s outrageous! I don’t want to hear ONE SOUND from any of you! NOT ONE PEEP!”
Perhaps because they could hear the note of true anger in my voice, or perhaps only because Mr. Pierce had paid a visit, they all went silent. We had half an hour of blissful, noiseless reading. Pages turned; the heating system hummed. When it was over, I passed out a math worksheet. The kids clutched at their faces and moaned.
I separated Nash and JoBeth, who were fencing with plastic rulers, and I told Carlton to stand by the bathroom door because he was talking incessantly about poop. The slower kids, sensibly, copied from the faster kids’ worksheets. Toby, the boy who said he’d eaten a ham sandwich over the weekend, was in despair. “What’s up?” I said.
“I suck at everything,” he said sadly.
“No you don’t,” I said. “Just do what you can do. It’s all right, it’s really okay, don’t worry about it, my man.” I collected all the finished and partly finished and not-even-started papers, and then, inwardly gnashing my teeth, I was compelled to hand out two more diabolical worksheets.
Toby asked me if he could sit at a table out in the hall, because he could concentrate better there. I said he could — he looked genuinely sad. A few minutes later, an enormous ed tech in a paisley dress ordered Toby back into the classroom. “They can’t sit at the tables without supervision,” she told me. “They know that.” Instead of going to his desk, Toby climbed into a supply cupboard at the back of the room and tried to close the doors on himself. “YOU CAN’T BE IN THERE!” cried Nicole and Danielle, pulling hard at the doors as Toby’s white fingertips held them firmly shut.
“Toby, come out of the cupboard!” said the ed tech. “COME OUT OF THE CUPBOARD OR YOU’LL OWE MRS. BROWNING A RECESS.”
“He’s really unhappy,” I said to the ed tech, in an undertone. “He’s been struggling. He told me he sucks at everything.”
“Oh, he always says that,” said the ed tech.
Toby emerged and put his head down on the desk, shielding himself with his arms.
Jess handed the ed tech the sheet that she’d kept of wrongdoers and, to my horror, the ed tech started to write all their names on the whiteboard.
I said, “Oh gosh, please don’t write their names up there.”
“Jess said you wanted me to write the names down,” the ed tech said, annoyed. She erased the names and handed the paper back to Jess.
Jess, crushed, tore up her list and threw it away. The ed tech stumped off.
“Thanks for doing it,” I said to Jess.
The last task of the day was for me to read to the class from Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl. I read to them about the Big Friendly Giant, who catches children’s dreams in glass bottles and makes magic powders out of them. “A dream,” I read, “as it goes drifting through the night air, makes a tiny little buzzing humming sound, a sound so soft and low it is impossible for ordinary people to hear it.” I looked up. The whole class was motionless. Carlton’s head was up; Ian’s head was up; Nash’s head was up; the tattletale girls were all intent on hearing every word I was saying. Everyone was listening. I kept going. I got to the part where the Big Friendly Giant uses a long blowpipe to blow his dream powders into children’s rooms. The sleeping child breathes in the powder, and begins dreaming a marvelous dream. “Wow,” I said. “Should I read some more?”
“YES,” said the class. It was the first time they’d spoken in unison since they’d said “I will be the best that I can be” at the beginning of the day.
“You’re an awesome storyteller,” said Nadia.
At the end of the day, I thanked each of them for spending the day with me, and some of them thanked me for being their sub. “Nash,” I said, “you were going totally nuts in the middle of the day, and now you’ve pulled it together.”
“I’m like that,” Nash said. “I’m wild, and then I calm down.”
The buses were announced, and then the class was gone.