September 16, 2016, 7:30pm. Buy tickets here. At the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Parking under building $1 after 6:00 pm. Enter from Wilshire and Courtyard Drive.
Nicholson Baker has a new book coming out and it is not about sex. It’s nonfiction, a great big dose of the kind of nonfiction that he writes in The New Yorker: funny, profoundly observant, and compulsively entertaining. Substitute is Nicholson Baker’s immersion into the rigors of k-12 education, where he chronicles the actual work of being a substitute teacher. The only way to really understand teaching, Baker thought, is to actually do it, to live it. So he became a substitute, “the lowest-ranking participant in American education,” and landed in classrooms from grades K-12, teaching honors students and special ed students all of the usual required subjects to the more arcane electives, such as metal work. What’s a substitute teacher to do when he or she doesn’t know the material? What’s a substitute teacher to do when confronted with 30 creative and active adolescents and children whose agendas for the day might differ from the absent teacher? What happens is that Baker takes us into the hearts and minds of hundreds of school kids, as well as teachers and administrators. Nicholson Baker gives us a blow-by-blow of his days in school, which are at times hilarious, at times harrowing, and pretty much always utterly exhausting. Baker’s fellow teachers are often noble, as are the students, and what becomes clear is that “Mr. Baker” took advantage of great opportunity to truly teach, to understand his charges, and that sometimes his students took advantage of their great opportunity to learn from a master. Nicholson Baker is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Can you imagine how great it would be to have him as a substitute?
It’s nothing new, no secret, that education can create, enhance and even define one’s opportunities. Jeff Hobbs, author of the prize-winning and magnificently reviewed bestseller, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, explores the almost Shakespearean story of Robert Peace, a young man who grew up near Newark. Robert Peace was a brilliant guy whose steely dedication and intellectual power got him out of the urban grit of Orange, New Jersey and into the Ivy halls of Yale. But Peace could never fully get rid of the street: following his graduation from Yale, Robert Peace returned to his old high school to teach, only to descend into drugs. He was murdered when he was 30 years old.
Nicholson Baker and Jeff Hobbs will discuss Baker’s surprising and illuminating experience as a substitute teacher, and the impact that a thoughtful, engaged teacher does– and does not– have on students.