The emphasis of 826 is just as much on the teachers within the public schools as it is on the students. Teachers have huge class loads, Calegari says, especially in large city schools, and it’s difficult to provide individual attention and project-based learning when you’ve got 35 kids in a classroom. “That’s what distinguishes us from other nonprofits,” says Calegari. “We’re proactively pro-teacher. We don’t come in and say, ‘We know better how to do your job.’ We ask, ‘How can we help you? What are your goals?’ We’re helping teachers be more effective.”
IDEAS AHOY!: The first 826 branch, in San Francisco, mixes pirate fantasy with personal instruction to inspire young writers.
In addition to helping to bring this about, volunteers — who do everything from tutor to tend bar at 826 events — have a blast. Diana Kimball, 19, volunteered at the Ann Arbor branch. “The volunteers are so creative and so enthusiastic and so willing to make it about a community of adults rediscovering the joy of childhood imagination,” she says. “They become a social group,” says Jacobson. And because the organization is based on volunteers, they do as much as they can to show their appreciation through parties and events. Volunteer applications are available online, and they’re looking for people now.
Of course it’s the students who gain the most. “People need undivided attention,” Calegari says, whether they're in “Omaha or Boston or Vermont.”
“We’re acknowledging them as thinkers,” says Jacobson. “That’s the biggest point.” Feeney echoes the sentiment: “it just gives students a great sense of legitimacy,” he says in reference to the professional quality of the student publications (Sherman Alexie, Robin Williams, and the mayor of LA have written introductions to recent 826 books), as well as to the presence of professional writers.
Already, 826 Boston has launched a program at the English High School in Jamaica Plain, bringing local authors Steve Almond and Junot Díaz to speak to students. “The kids were enthralled,” says Jacobson. Almond waxes political about the need for the organization: “In the current political climate, they’ve fucked over big urban schools,” he says. “Programs like this, they’re really about consciousness-raising,” and the more we can do “to broaden the number of people who look to books and writing as a way of feeling more alive and compassionate,” the better. Kelly Link, Western Massachusetts author of the award-winning Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen, is scheduled to talk to students this spring. “I’m hugely impressed by what I’ve seen of their space in San Francisco,” she says. “The first time I was there, I bought a glass eyeball.”
On the Web
826 Boston: http://www.826boston.org
826 National: http://826national.org/