I imagined navigating a store full of eye patches, Jolly Roger flags, treasure maps, and swearing parrots to finally find a secret entrance to an otherworldly place where brave children writers banged away on old classic typewriters. I could hear the click-clacking of keys, the ring of the return bell, and I could see the sheets of paper flying out into the air and drifting toward the floor, covered in flawless sentences.
And though my imagination got a few details wrong, beyond the shelves and drawers of pirate paraphernalia, simply sectioned off from the store by a short rope and a bolt snap, there is, in fact, a big enchanting room where kids come every day to work hard at reading, writing, and learning. But I only came to know this once I began to volunteer at 826 Valencia.
The idea of volunteering at 826 Valencia was something I carried around with me like a half-forgotten five-dollar bill in my back pocket – always there, ready for the moment when I really needed it. Years went by, and finding myself in a post-graduate funk, I decided that helping out kids would be the best way to counter my wandering and discomposed sense of the world. I filled out the volunteer form online and was promptly invited to come down to the room behind the Pirate Supply Store, which I now know is called the writing lab, for a new volunteer orientation.
I showed up nervous, like I was back in elementary school and it was my first day as the new kid. I made my way through the store, noticing the big bushy pirate beards and mustaches stuck on mirrors, boxes of skull keys, and other assorted pirate trappings. I was surprised and relieved that there were actually no swearing parrots. I tried to look like I knew where I was going, but it was obvious I didn’t. Someone pointed me in the right direction and unlatched the rope barrier.
Upon entering the room I was immediately struck by how perfectly it had been set up to rouse the spirit of creativity. I sat down at one of the many long, solid wooden tables and took a look around. Books lined the walls, porthole “windows” with beautifully drawn swimming fish glinted above the books, and two massive tree trunks seemed to support the entire ceiling of the front end of the room. It was more spacious than I had imagined, and it really seemed as if I were below deck on a pirate schooner.
Once everyone arrived and settled into their seats, introductions began. My voice squeaked when I told Margaret McCarthy, the volunteer and events coordinator, and the other new volunteers my name. I hoped that despite the embarrassing pitch of my voice I would still somehow manage to come across as capable and dependable. As the orientation went on, my nervousness was replaced by excitement and purpose. I was inspired by the staff, and how meaningful 826 Valencia is to the community.
One of the things I appreciate about 826 Valencia is all the whim and wonder that seems to surround it, sandwiched between Paxton Gate, a store of natural science curiosities, and Mission Playground and Pool, a lively public park. And amongst all the fun, very significant work manages to get done. Since opening its doors in 2002, the nonprofit has been assisting students between the ages of six and 18 with their writing skills, and has become an umbrella organization for 826 chapters in major cities nationwide.
I immediately signed up to help out with an in-house Storytelling and Bookmaking session for third graders. The students would write, illustrate, publish, and bind their own books in two hours, and then take home the keepsake at the end of the day.
A few weeks later, the other volunteers and I got to work setting up the chairs in front of the projector to prepare for their arrival. We sharpened pencils, got out blank name tags, and made sure the camera was ready to take pictures. I could feel my excitement mounting and I wondered what the students would be like – maybe boisterous or maybe shy with whisper-soft voices? And then I heard them before I saw them, at the front door of the Pirate Supply Store, their chatter muffled into dull booms of indiscernible sound, echoing out of their mouths and out into the street.
They came in through the store, led by their teacher in a ragged line, bundled up in puffy jackets, carrying bright backpacks. A few parents came along to help too, smiling easily. One by one, each student told me who they were and watched very carefully as I wrote out their name tags. With their names emblazoned on their chests with a Sharpie, they were ready to take turns sitting for the camera with writerly props like a big plumed pen or an open book. These photos ended up in their keepsake books in the “about the author” section.
It was hilarious watching the kids in front of the camera – some seemed to shrink up into even tinier versions of themselves, abashed and sheepish in front of the lens. Others had a real flair for the dramatic, making mock scholarly faces and waving the quill pen about. One girl closed her eyes and dropped her mouth wide open right as her picture was being taken, and when I asked why she decided to have her picture taken like that, she shrugged her shoulders and simply said, “Oh, I always do that. That’s how I like to look in my photos.”
When we got them all seated, the facilitator (often a volunteer, but today was Programs Director Vickie Vértiz) went over basic narrative elements with the students and explained the storytelling process at 826 Valencia: The students would work on the story together, voting on which ideas they like best. She encouraged them to be as original as possible, to not rip off TV or video games or movies, and to not bring violence into their stories.
As Vickie spoke, the kids sat quietly and listened, nodding their heads to signal their understanding and raising their hands to answer basic questions about plot, setting, and conflict. But when Vickie asked for ideas about a main character their eagerness could no longer be contained. Hands shot up in the air, knees bounced, giggles erupted, elbows flapped, and voices rushed in saying things like, “A robot with wings!” “A bulldog with one eye!” “A ninja zombie!”
Somehow they managed to settle on their protagonist, a circle named Mr. Tootle, and his sidekick, a cookie named Mr. Cookie. And from that point on the story began to take some very unexpected twists and turns. I was the typist that day, and my fingers moved in a mad rush to keep up with their ideas, which scattered out into the room like meteor outbursts, hot and radiant with their unrelenting enthusiasm. Another volunteer simultaneously illustrated their ideas with unflagging skill and fervor.
The students decided that Mr. Tootle and Mr. Cookie lived on top of a person’s head, making their home somewhere underneath piles of hair, and together they made a living by scouring the person’s scalp for cookie crumbs. Then trouble came for Mr. Tootle and Mr. Cookie in the form of a crumb-stealing nemesis, and the adventures began! Vickie ended the discussion where the final
outcome of the story was still uncertain, so that while the printing and binding of the books began in the office, the kids were each given a blank page and the opportunity to write their own ending.
With my typing duties finished, I circulated around the room with the other volunteers to help the kids out. Some of them illustrated their endings. Some of them asked me what I thought should happen. Some of them told me in great detail about Mr. Tootle and Mr. Cookie’s foreseeable future. One student decided he had had enough with Mr. Tootle and Mr. Cookie and asked if instead he could braid my hair. I said, “Sure, but while you braid, let’s talk about what might happen in the story.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay, it’s a deal.” My braid came out just right, and so did his ending.
I was there for only two and half hours, but I walked out of 826 Valencia that day knowing something out of the ordinary had happened – that I had been carried away by a group of kids and allowed to inhabit a place of imagination and excitement that is sometimes difficult to find on my own. I felt full of good fortune to have met and known Mr. Tootle and Mr. Cookie, and the children writers who had so eagerly imagined them into reality.
To offer your support to students who really need and love volunteers, follow these steps: If you reside in San Francisco, visit the 826 Valencia website, click on “volunteer,” and just fill out the questionnaire. Someone from 826 Valencia will promptly get back to you. If you reside elsewhere, check out the 826 National website for volunteer opportunities.