School is Weird and Crazy

Nicholson Baker, the post-modernist who wrote an entire novel (The Mezzanine) about an escalator ride, has produced his weirdest piece of writing yet: a 719 page piece of non-fiction called Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids . . . the premise is simple, Baker signs up as an on-call substitute and he provides his services for twenty-eight days, subbing at every grade level in several schools near his home in Maine, and he writes down everything that happens while he is in school, and nothing makes for weirder writing than reality . . . I read four-hundred pages-- enough to get the gist-- and then skipped to the end, and while Baker's findings are close to my heart-- especially since we've just been through the winter solstice, and sunlight is scarce, high school kids are groggy, and my school day begins before the sun is fully up-- which I think is nuts (and so does everyone else who has thought about this, including the CDC) but it's definitely not a priority; Baker agrees, he considers the school day insanely long and tedious and without empathy or logic . . . no one in their right mind who wanted people to actually learn would march them from one activity to the next, manically and without transition; he admires the kids who are just trying to make it though, the kids who aren't all that academic and don't really care about the work, but need to jump through the same hoops as the kids that do care . . . and he notes that the vast differences between the successful, smart and motivated kids and the kids who are not thriving -- he is always impressed by the studious children, and finds empathy for those captive kids simply surviving the day without going completely insane . . . he is frightened by the use of technology and the pervasive assessment, quizzing, and panopticon-like educational platforms, but also sees the value of cell phones and Ipads and laptops as an easy escape for the disaffected, and a way for kids to make the day passably interesting . . . he realizes what teachers know: that it's more about bus schedules and child care than setting up an ideal learning environment and schedule-- that anything else is just not feasible with the current set up-- and he is amazed by teachers that keep it together and do a good job under these constraints, and he is mildly indignant about teachers who do not sympathize with the plight of the students and by the end he professes his love for the "whole broken, beautiful, wasteful, totally crazy educational system" that he spent a short time being a part of . . . and though I often have similar sentiments about the problems with American education, in the end, I love it too, but if you're not familiar with it, browsing through this book will remind you how odd a school day is for the captive audience that participates.

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