Dave Eggers sends Seattle kids on a one-way trip to Planet Literature.
Photo by Caleb Plowman
One enters the 826 Seattle writing center through the front door of Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., a business that advertises rooftop parking for rocket ships. A sign outside reads, “Space travel is all we do.” Inside, an 826 Seattle volunteer wearing a white lab coat is usually manning the store’s cash register, selling items like foam guns and fake alien brains. Beside the cash register is the Atomic Teleporter, which is actually an old revolving door from a photo lab darkroom. Pass through it and enter a busy writing and tutoring center for young people aged 6 to 18.
826 Seattle Executive Director Teri Hein describes the writing center as “a wild and wacky place.” Twice a week, teachers from area schools bring students in, and together the class collaborates on a book — a six- to ten-page illustrated story. One recent creation was an Election Day tale, The Platypus’s Presidential Problem, written by a third-grade class from Whittier Elementary. During the 2007–8 school year, 1,192 students participated in these literary field trips.
Then there is the after-school crowd — on average twenty-five to thirty-eight students come through the door during these hours for drop-in, one-on-one tutoring. It’s a time when 826 Seattle becomes a place to finish homework. Saturdays offer writing workshops with subjects ranging from “Fractured Fairytales” to “The Perfect (or Almost Perfect) College Entrance Essay.”
The staff estimates all this doodling comes to “47.1 pounds of pencil shavings annually.” That number is highly approximate, admits Alex Allred, 826 Seattle financial and operations manager.
The idea for 826 originated with Dave Eggers, author of the seminal books A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What and founder of McSweeney’s, the online literary magazine and publishing company that has by now officially gained cult status. Eggers opened 826 Valencia in San Francisco in 2002 with some of the advance for the never-made New Line Cinema movie of his memoir (reportedly $2 million). His idea was to pair experienced writers with young people. With the help of veteran public school teacher Nínive Calegari, the Harvard MA who is now CEO of 826 National, the writing center expanded to workshops, collaborations with schools and finally student-produced paperback books, one of them published by Robin Williams and several sold in bookstores like Barnes & Noble.
In 2007, Eggers won the TED Prize for his work at 826. The TED Prize awards “exceptional individuals” $100,000 and grants them “one wish to change the world.” Making books with students “is absolutely transformative,” Eggers said in his acceptance speech. “The kids will work harder than they’ve ever worked in their life if they know it’s going to be permanent, if they know it’s going to be on a shelf. They know nobody can diminish what they’ve thought and said. . . . Once they’ve achieved that level, once they’ve written at that level, they can never go back.” Ten Seattle kids contributed to the newest 826 book, Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama.
Hein, a published author herself (Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place), knew Eggers from his visits to the Hutch School where she taught kids from all over the world for twenty years — kids who came to Seattle for cancer treatment or who were accompanying sick family members. As Hein prepared to open her own writing center, Eggers asked her if she would be interested in opening an 826 chapter in Seattle.
There are now seven 826s in cities around the nation — all of them with storefronts. In New York, it’s the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company. Chicago has a spy supply store disguised as The Boring Store. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, it’s the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair.
The reason 826s reside in storefronts is a fluke of zoning requirements. When Eggers opened 826 Valencia, he learned the building was zoned for retail. If the writing center was to stay, then they had to sell something there. So, Eggers and staff opened a pirate supply store. The place turned into more than just a gag. People were drawn in, and the store made money for 826 Valencia programs.
Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. looks a bit like a toy store. Display items are meant to be touched, gear should be tried out — including “Mostly Harmless Training Devices,” foam rocket guns and the sinister-sounding ring-smoke gun called “The Diversion Deployment System,” which, according to package instructions, has been “proven to temporarily occupy small mammals.”
Alongside the toys, collections of kids’ stories are available for sale. Some of the books are compilations of student writing completed during workshops, such as All Systems Go! An 826 Seattle Comic Book, written by students in a 2006 workshop taught by comic book artist David Lasky. Another collection, 826 Seattle Writes the Rain: Stories about Humans, Mythical Creatures, and Jelly Doughnuts, is a compilation of work from summer workshops in 2007 and from a writing contest in which entrants had to include space, jelly doughnuts and a famous author in the text. Others books come from students at Hamilton International Middle School or the now closed John Marshall Alternative High School.
In June 2008, students from Wallingford’s Hamilton International Middle School finished Having Them Here: Family Portraits. Funding for this project came from a $100,000 Anne V. Farrell Leadership Grant 826 Seattle received in 2006 through the Seattle Foundation. Volunteer tutors worked with four classes for two years, starting with sixth graders. Two classes were mainstream students; the other two were ESL students from immigrant populations. “We are open to all kids, regardless of life situation,” says Hein. The drop-in tutoring program serves kids 75 percent of whose parents don’t speak English as a first language; many are Ethiopian. The field trip programs prioritize public schools with high subsidized-lunch populations but also serve private schools. The Saturday workshops attract kids who consider themselves writers, often coming from the middle and upper tax brackets.
“Our contention,” says Hein, “is that if you can tell your own story, and you tell it well, and you can tell it truthfully, you will have more pride in who you are.”
A few of the Hamilton International Middle School students came to 826 Seattle in the summer of 2008 for ESL classes taught by Norma Andrade. As part of their work, the students painted a mural that decorates the bus stop at the corner of North 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North. Led by Andrade and with help from artist Joseph Peha, students created images evoking migrations from China, Vietnam and Indonesia. In the mural, travel stickers cover one suitcase, while an open trunk is packed full of ocean waves.
Working together to paint the mural, Andrade explains, was “a way for kids to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t necessarily express themselves through words. For kids, particularly English language learners, it’s important to represent what they’re trying to say.”
Another school Hein found herself drawn to was John Marshall Alternative High School in Greenlake. She imagined these students would have intriguing stories but doubted they had had many opportunities to write them down. Many John Marshall students were considered “high risk.” Most came from low-income families. There were teen mothers and kids who had been kicked out of every other school in town.
These kids are the “ones who don’t get anything really,” said Audra Gallegos, who taught Language Arts at John Marshall. “None of them, that I was aware of, had really had one-on-one attention with their writing before,” she says. Hein brought in a team of tutors to work in the classroom.
Gallegos tells a story that will be familiar to many teachers: how just the work of class management can consume a great deal of time and energy. “Any time there’s an interruption, if someone has to go to the bathroom, if someone’s not on task, if something behavioral is happening, then teaching isn’t happening; learning’s not happening.” But with the tutors there, Gallegos said, she managed the class while “the students got to work on their writing with the tutors. It was beautiful. It just worked the way it should.”
Getting through to students isn’t merely about improving grades. The kind of self-expression 826 encourages is often more elusive, unquantifiable: “You just have to believe that it is good, and [that] it works.”
Hein tells the story of Raymond, a particularly challenging John Marshall student. “He was really standoffish,” she says, the kind of kid who can intimidate peers as well as adults.
“I don’t think Raymond liked me very much,” said Hein. She worked closely with him, trying to get through. His first story described the murder of his uncle Julius in a drug deal — how his body was found mutilated in a dumpster.
“Your uncle sounds like a thug,” Hein told Raymond. “In my world, that’s what we think.” It wasn’t what Raymond wanted to hear. He was so mad, he wouldn’t look at her, Hein recalls. He defended his uncle, calling him a hero because of the way he took care of his children, even selling drugs to support them. Hein suspected Uncle Julius was the kind of father Raymond would have wanted, but she didn’t say this. What she did say was: “So, make me like your uncle. Make him more than a drug dealer. Tell me about his children and his sense of humor and the movies he liked.” If he wanted a middle-aged woman to understand why Raymond looked up to his uncle, then he needed to talk about his lovable qualities, she explained.
“You’ll be doing your uncle’s memory a service if you help people like me understand him better,” Hein said. “Because your world is different from my world, and we have to know each other’s worlds if we’re going to take care of each other.” Raymond never really looked at Hein during all this. He just kept typing until the story was done. It became a tribute to his uncle. “I mean, he wasn’t the pope or nothing,” Raymond wrote: “Uncle J. did what was going to make the money to feed his kids and keep them in decent clothing. From what I know, he did what he had to, even if that meant selling drugs and robbing people who were basically showing off all their money.”
Raymond’s story is published alongside others in an anthology called (It’s Not Always) Happily Ever After.
Brenda, another John Marshall student, writes in the same anthology about a memorable seventh-grade year: “I went to juvie for the first time, got on probation, ran away, started smoking cigarettes and weed. I was doing 252 mph down a dangerous reckless road. 252 means 2 much 5 times 2 fast.”
In the foreword to (It’s Not Always) Happily Ever After, author Sherman Alexie (also an 826 Seattle board member) writes: “Please pay attention to these writers. Pay careful attention to their stories. Please, listen.”
With a budget of about $407,000 for the 2008–9 school year, 826 Seattle largely operates on a community of teachers, writers, artists, graphic designers and others who offer their time, money and support. They currently have a roster of four hundred active volunteers and over nine hundred volunteer applications on file. In the 2007–8 school year, volunteers donated over eleven thousand hours.
“A lack of preparation is a prescription for mishaps,” reminds a sign painted on the window of the space travel supply store. The kids attending 826 might not become writers; they might become doctors, lawyers, engineers, rappers. They might enter a world of trouble. But for many of them, the act of expression itself is life-changing. When asked to gauge the value of 826, a tenth grader named Michael responded: “On a scale of one to ten, it’s like infinity.”
Learn more about 826 Seattle’s educational programming on their Web site: www.826seattle.org