On Subbing: The First Four Years: By Dave Roche, 127 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Nov 19, 2008

“It’s really unnerving to see a kid with a blank expression screaming uncontrollably.”On Subbing is a chronological collection of remembrances of substitute teaching in the Portland, Oregon, school system over a four-year period. It comes across as a mix between the memoir of a combat veteran and an examination of bureaucracy à la Orwell’s 1984.

“I found out the reason they needed a sub today was because this kid had head-butted the regular EA’s jaw and sent her to the hospital. Awesome. I escaped with my jaw intact, but did receive two blows to the testicles.” On Subbing was initially released in zine format. All of the zines have been collected here in book form and augmented with a prologue and a postscript. The author, Dave Roche (whose name appears nowhere on the cover, I suspect, due in part to the threat of being sued by the school district he served), does a great job of both setting the up the reader to fully comprehend what he’s writing about while showing his deep compassion—and occasional frustrations—with the students and teachers he worked with.

“A little later, a student ran out into the middle of the ice-skating rink and started masturbating… I would just start talking to him about anything and he’d stop, but not for very long.” Dave subbed for mentally and socially challenged and disadvantaged kids (and young adults). He sets the psychological and school-specific terms ahead of time (like explaining a table full of shaving cream as a tactile activity for the students) and is careful in his explanations of disabilities (like autism). What is also refreshing is Dave’s restraint. The book focuses, first and foremost, on his experiences directly related to teaching in the schools and never strays too far from the topic at hand. As many of us know, zines—especially ones focused so closely on self experience—can fall into the dumpster of DIY narcissism and caffeinated self-pity. Dave deftly bunny hops right over that hole. He’s both vegan and straight edge, but these details, along with his away-from-school personal life, come up in the natural evolution of the book, providing both backdrop and context.

Ultimately, Dave comes across as likable, caring, a little odd, and human—like a dude you’d like to drink a soda pop with as he tells you about his day, especially when it went well. “These kids were so sweet and trusting. They came up and grabbed my hand right away… the kids shaved crayons onto wax paper, then I put another sheet of wax paper over it and ironed it, melting the crayon shavings. The kids cut out the wax paper to look like butterflies.”

On Subbing is highly recommended. Actually, it’s one of the best scenarios of what a zine that transforms into a book can be. –Todd (Microcosm, 22 S. Rogers St., Bloomington, IN47404-4936, www.microcosmpublishing.com)

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