Substitute teaching has to be education’s toughest job. I’m a veteran teacher, and I won’t do it; it’s just too hard. The role magnifies the profession’s biggest challenges—the low pay, the insufficient time to plan, the ordeals of classroom management—into an experience that borders on soul-crushing. At the same time, the job drains teaching of its chief joy: sustained, meaningful relationships with students. Yet in 2014, some 623,000 Americans answered school districts’ early-morning calls to take on this daunting task. Improbably, among their ranks was Nicholson Baker.
Baker has written more than a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. Whether in pursuit of new material or because the economic plight of even acclaimed literary authors is more dismal than we knew (or both), he applied to be a sub in a “not-terribly-poor-but-hardly-rich school district” within driving distance of his home in Maine, where he lives with his wife. The criminal-background check sailed through, though you might wonder why a writer of novels so raunchy that he’s earned a reputation as a highbrow pornographer didn’t get any further vetting. Imagine the texted OMGs and weeping-laughter emoji had Baker’s students dipped into his notorious 1992 novel, Vox, an account of a man and woman having phone sex on a pay-per-minute chat line. (At one point, the guy runs into trouble xeroxing his penis for a co-worker he is trying to seduce—ah, the pre-sexting inconveniences!)