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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Up in the Morning and Out to School

Dave Roche, On Subbing: The First Four Years (2004, 128 pp.)

"Hello, I'm Dave" is how Dave Roche's 128-page On Subbing sets the mood for this swift, brief, diaristic account of four years between 2000 and 2004 during which he financed his modest rent and vegan sustenance by bicycling all over Portland, Oregon, to some 40 public schools of every level, where he filled in for absent full-time teachers in classes for the learning-disabled from pre-K to high school. So figure he used the very same words to break the ice with hundreds if not thousands of students, most of them autistic, disabled, or just maladjusted. Check him out on Goodreads and you'll find that Roche's few detractors are considerably grumpier than he is even though he's describing a rather hard job and also even though that job inspires a remarkably easy read. Some samples:

"'Play something and we'll sing. Do you know any Elvis songs?' 'No.' 'How 'bout 'Rock Around the Clock'? 'Uh, no, sorry.' The only songs I know how to play are by the Ramones and Jawbreaker."

"During free time, a girl came up and handed me a bunch of foam letters, the kind that interlock. I stacked them on her head. She loved it."

"A girl insisted that a duck with a blue bill was a platypus. I had a hard time convincing her otherwise."

"He would also get upset if the kids ran from him, which is something you have to get over if you're playing tag."

"Some of these were stamped CUM FOLDER. Sure, I'm a jerk for snickering at that, but not as big a jerk as the guy who couldn't think of a better abbreviation for 'cumulative.'"

"I subbed for the librarian. It was great. There wasn't very much for me to do, and what I was supposed to do I couldn't."

"A kid asked me if I wanted to fight. When I declined he asked why not. I said 'I don't want to lose my job.' He was satisfied with that."

"I was kind of upset that it cut into my 45 minute lunch break, but then I realized I was getting paid to play with Duplo blocks."

These are hardly the only laugh lines in a book whose humor feeds off its humanity and vice versa--a book given me by a retired high school teacher who happens to be my sister. Right, Roche is or was a punk musician. But the informal ease and colloquial wisecracking of his prose was nurtured in the zine world, where he's been at least as active--it's the rare book that isn't improved by humor, and he clearly knows it. Yet there's a sense in which Roche's joking around is a camouflage, a stealth way to help the medicine go down. Taken as a whole, how fond he is of this ever-evolving array of special ed students from four to 18 undercuts and/or softens the occasional satirical moments in what is functionally an argument for special ed's efficacy and, two decades after its publication, a preemptive kick in Moms for Liberty's pants and a prophetic sneak attack on the ignant, puritanical Christian-ed propaganda now rampaging through every U.S. county that accommodates a megachurch or a cabal of MAGA parents who fear and detest science, immigration, and sexual freedom.

The immediate appeal is laughs and autobiography. But On Subbing turns out to have an enduring message: an informed respect for the teaching profession rendered doubly credible by its matter-of-fact acknowledgment that some teachers are lazy or overstressed and a few are snobs or pricks or no-talents or know-it-alls just like in most work environments. Because as entertaining as On Subbing turned out to be, more than that it left me feeling warm and appreciative--grateful to the many teachers, most of whom get only cameos, who did the difficult job of educating children and teenagers, and also grateful that so many teachers, underfunded and undertrained though too many are, are not so much reported as depicted by outsider Roche to tend patient, flexible, and empathetic. As it happens, I don't know just what became of him. But at pub date he was looking to be more than a sub in academic years to come.

And It Don't Stop, January 5, 2024