Portlandƒ?TMs Finest Teacher

By Gesse Stark-Smith

In the course of writing reviews for The Mac Weekly I have been accused of cheating. Yes, that’s right, cheating. I know, I was shocked, too. What could I possibly be doing that would constitute cheating? Writing about books that I haven’t read during the current semester, that’s what. Now, although I advocate spending as much time as possible on non-academic reading, given the hectic nature of the undergraduate schedule, plowing through a non-required book every week or two is not always feasible. I do get a thrill from devouring a shiny new novel when I’m supposed to be reading about Socrates/learning the phonetic alphabet/writing a paper about formal logic, but at a certain point I have to stop messing around and do my homework.All of this is by way of an introduction because as I review “this week’s book” it will become clear that I read it about a month ago—some quick mental arithmetic will tell you that, gasp, I read it while on break. The book in question is called “On Subbing: The First Four Years” and it is a compilation of zines by Dave Roche which record his experiences as a substitute teacher—well, a substitute education assistant—in the Portland Public Schools. The part where you know I read it a while ago is the part when I start raving about Powell’s bookstore where I bought this tiny gem. Powell’s, as you may know, is in Portland and it is, in a word, amazing. It is huge and independent and they’ve got a poetry section I could spend days in (eat your heart out Barnes and Noble). They’ve also got a small press section for both prose and verse, which is dotted with staff recommendations and that’s where I spied “On Subbing.”

The book begins with an explanation of how Roche became a substitute education assistant, which is a position that gives extra support to students in special education classes, from helping them with worksheets to taking them to the bathroom and everything in between. Roche got this job when he was 25, working at Goodwill, which was gross and sad for all of the reasons you can imagine, and realized that “Defining myself by what I don’t like and what I won’t do served me well into my early 20s, but I felt I reached a point where I had to figure out what I do like. And I wanted a job where I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.” As an almost college graduate with no concrete future plans this is a situation I can see looming on the horizon.

But I don’t think that you should read this book because you are demographically similar to Roche or because you are going to be a substitute teacher. I mean, those would be fine reasons, but what is really striking in this volume is the humor, compassion and intelligence with which Roche conducts himself through a variety of physically and emotionally harrowing experiences—yeah, he gets kicked in the nuts a couple of times but that is hardly the worst of it. He consistently respects the kids he works with, kids who are generally not accustomed to being taken seriously, all the while refusing to pay attention to most of the bureaucratic nonsense he encounters.

Roche finds a balance between irreverent wit and earnest empathy and in doing so he provides a compelling illustration of what it really means to be a grown up. How do we become productive members of society without letting go of our youthful idealistic values? Roche, the menschy punk, gives us a hint with this simple but poignant chronicle of his experiences. Oh, and the section about shoplifting is hilarious. I read it out loud to my mom, who has worked in education for over 30 years, and she laughed, she laughed a lot. That’s right, I read it out loud to my mom, because I was home and it was break.

On Subbing: The First Four Years

By Dave Roche

Microcosm Publishing, 2005

Microcosmpublishing.com ($4)