Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Nicholson Baker, the American essayist and author of 'Vox' and 'The Fermata'

'I was obsessed with cycling and speed skating at school'
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Nicholson Baker, 52, is the author of Vox, the novel about telephone sex that Monica Lewinsky supposedly gave to Bill Clinton. Other novels include The Fermata, the story of a man who can stop time, and, just out, The Anthologist. His non-fiction includes Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, which came out last year.

After I got into a verbal conflict with another child at nursery school, the teacher gave me a life-size inflatable clown so that I could take out my aggression on it. I pushed it very gently and it went down and came up and I realised: "There is no way of winning against this clown!" I only got into trouble once at my nursery school in Rochester, upstate New York.

Then I went for a year to a private kindergarten. My mother paid the tuition fees by painting for the kindergarten a circular mural with pelicans, polar bears and seals.

I went to Martin B Anderson School Number 1 – all schools had numbers – for four years. Then voluntary integration came in and I volunteered to be part of this early experimental programme.

For two years we were bussed to Clara Barton School Number 2 in the heart of the city. I was part of a tiny white minority and had a really good time. We had to pick a book from a list and write a series of lessons as if we were the teacher. I made vocabulary quizzes and essay questions from Lord of the Flies but nobody did my lessons.

Then I went to Francis Parker Number 23 school for a year. I was obsessed with cycling and speed skating and didn't pay much attention in class. And then, at 13, I had a year at Monroe Junior High School, where we built a model of the Globe Theatre and everyone had to swim naked – very traumatic.

During a time of great excitement in public education, a new high school had been founded, the "School Without Walls". All of us had to invent our own programmes. If you were interested in designing a rocket, you would get in touch with an engineer. I ended up studying algebra in the attic of a church, and I had a physics class taught by a blind student at the university who had all the equations in his head. I realised I hadn't read a single book for a whole year and so attended literature classes at the university.

There was a year, at least, when I just cycled around. There were no grades, of course. I typed up my own "transcript" – the official record of what you've done. I tried to be truthful.

I wanted to be a bassoonist and to compose music in the style of Stravinsky and Bartok. Still in Rochester, I spent a year as a bassoon student at Eastman School of Music. I decided I was a failure as a composer and wanted to be a writer. I transferred to Haverford, a Quaker college in Philadelphia, and read English literature: Milton, Spencer, George Eliot's novels. I also took French, German and Latin and tried to catch up. I took a year and a half off and went to Paris and that's when I started writing fiction. I wrote a long story about a trombonist which ended up in The Atlantic, an American magazine, several years later.

They were good teachers at Haverford and, once I was at a place where they gave grades, I wanted good grades. My GPA – Grade Point Average – was 3.9; the highest possible was 4.0. I was there for four years and then took a class to be a stockbroker. I was a stockbroker for a week and a half; I sold some stocks to my bassoon teacher, my uncle and myself – and developed a psychosomatic illness.