When I walked into Wallenberg High School in San Francisco to observe a handful of tutors work with an AP-English class on their personal statements for their college applications, I thought back to the last time I had been in my own high school. It was 1991, Ray-Bans were in for the second time around, and I was as excited about my writing in Creative Writing-Honors class as I was to have my locker in the prime position of the front hall. Sixteen years later and I was walking into a profoundly different public school system, but one that was benefiting from the very program I was here to observe—826 Valencia, founded by one of my own high school alums, acclaimed author, Dave Eggers.
Just after college, my mom asked me if I remembered Dave Eggers from high school. I told her that I remembered the name, but not the face, and she said he had been written up in Newsweek for starting Might magazine in San Francisco. Six years later, I got an e-mail from a friend telling me Eggers had written a literary hit. Egger’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, brought me back to similar angst-filled memories in our Truman Show-like suburb, while my family navigated its own dysfunctional melodrama.
What grew as a seed from fertile ground was Egger’s next venture in 826 Valencia, a tutoring program for public kids to give back to the community that had helped launch his career. This led to 826 National, which is now the parent organization of seven centers across the country. Launched in 2002 at the address in San Francisco’s Mission district which bears its name, 826 Valencia’s mission was a one-room, drop-in tutoring center to help students aged six through eighteen find their voice through creative and expository writing. Later, organizers teamed with teachers in public schools to go in and work on one-on-one writing projects with their students.
Some of these in-school projects transform into full book projects, like Exactly, a series of children’s stories written by the high school students that I was here to observe, which gave the students a sense of the effort that goes into a published work. Students can also sign up for after school workshops on comic book writing, poetry and self-expression, and public speaking and debate, while volunteers work with kids in 826’s writing lab. For the heavy lifting of fundraising, 826 hosts adult evening and weekend workshops, which pull in local authors as teachers, as well as a series of stores whose profits benefit the centers.
Back at Wallenberg High School, seniors were joined by four 826 volunteers.
The students formed circles of four with each volunteer, taking turns to go over their second round of edits for their personal statements. Meanwhile, Guilan Sheykhzadeh, their AP-English teacher, talked with me while the students worked on peer editing with each other and the 826 tutors.
“Peer editing helps to validate the process of editing and how much can come out of it … It’s a really empowering experience [for the students] to realize, ‘Oh, getting other voices and ideas can really help facilitate some positive change.’”
I walked around to see some of the feedback that students were receiving from volunteers, and was touched to see what topics these kids were broaching in their statements. For example, several described feeling as if they were living in two worlds due to separated families. One student wrote about her mother and the effects on her due to her parents’ divorce, while the 826 tutor probed her for more details.
“You kind of glaze over here, delve in, and pull the story out. You need to show how strong your mother is. Is she your role model? What has your relationship with her done for you?”
The student tilted her head shyly, but with the tutor’s support, she appeared ready to reach deeper.
“It’s made me want to be a stronger person,” she said.
“But in what way?” The volunteer continued to probe for answers to those questions sixteen year olds might not instinctively go to, and explained that she had to show the reader ways of being that her mother had exhibited to handle the situation.
“Focus on how you’ve learned to overcome your flaws,” the volunteer said.
Back with their teacher, Guilan, I asked how working with 826 had helped her students.
“826 shares a lot of our same ideas. Often when you work with outside organizations, they have their own agenda and you have yours, and it’s hard to reconcile those, and you might think, ‘Can I really bring this [project] in when I have all of these standards to touch upon?’ Because you have people [at 826] that come from backgrounds in literature, English, and education, they understand it, and this is huge—they respect teachers. I remember with Nínive (co-founder of 826 Valencia and CEO of 826 National) was that one, she had been a teacher, but two, she had remembered being a teacher.”
Guilan also mentioned that working with 826 on their personal statements from the start sets the tone for the rest of the year.
“Each year I am just blown away with some of the things that these students have had to deal with … For so many of them, these defining moments have only empowered them rather than defeated them. They’re brave enough to talk about it and they’re brave enough to say, ‘I’m not going to let this be who I am.’ … Students are able to expose themselves without feeling like they’re going to look odd or make themselves too vulnerable.”
After watching these teens reflect and bring forth honesty from their hearts and through their pens, I thought back to my high school English teachers and wondered if Eggers and I had both been given a gift, the gift of teacher attention which may have lead us to our careers today. Then I pulled out my fingerprinting paperwork from my 826 volunteer interview just months before, and I decided that I’d take the time to join, if only to give back to the students who also wanted the gift for their own.