A young boy leans over a pencil derby car. A giant eraser car sits next to him.
Giant pencil and eraser derby cars were a feature at 826 Valencia's 20th anniversary block party. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

The store that fronts 826 Valencia sells the finest pirate goods in all the seven seas: hand hooks, planks, peg legs, eye patches; you name it! In the aft of the store, buccaneers young and old can be found with a pen in one hand and a spyglass in the other, searching for the best stories to tell.

On Saturday, several dozen of those young pirates and their families spilled onto a car-free Valencia Street to celebrate the writing and tutoring center’s 20th Anniversary. They played with shark puppets, giant chessboards and derby cars shaped like pencils and erasers. 

“My birthday wish for 826 is that everyone can get the opportunity I got, because I feel like it was a big experience for me,” Frederick Layne, 16, said before reading his piece in front of an eager audience. 

Layne started going to 826 Valencia a year and a half ago. In his writing, he revealed the losses he experienced in his family over the course of his life. “I know that I never let the losses that I took make me just stop wanting to go to school … but instead use them as excuses to do better,” he read. 

The crowd erupted in applause. “I went through a lot of similar experiences to yours,” a photographer told Layne after his reading. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Frederick Layne. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

826 Valencia has served the students in the Mission with writing workshops, tutoring and pirate magic since it opened 20 years ago. Author Dave Eggers and teacher Nínive Calegari started the nonprofit to meet a problem teachers were facing: Not enough one-on-one writing instruction for students. 

“What we found was that students that had not been confident writers, especially if English was their second language, they were unhappy at school, they were not feeling confident, they were not feeling that they could raise their voice and participate fully,” Eggers said. 

But at 826 Valencia, developing student voices didn’t look like doing grammar drills in Davy Jones’ Locker or writing a(rrrrgh)umentative essays on the symbolism of the whale in “Moby Dick.” It looked like adults listening to students’ ideas and engaging in dialogue as students crafted poems and personal essays, many of them learning to value the pen as an anchor for understanding the world and their own lives.

“What we’re trying to do is elevate writing to be equally, if not more important, than the reading,” said current executive director and long-time teacher Bita Nazarian. “If we focus on writing, then students are basically interpreting the world, expressing themselves, sharing their ideas; they’re actually stronger learners and thinkers and can influence other people.”

Eggers also sees writing as a power that allows students to engage in contemporary politics. 

“If you can’t write, it is very difficult to let your voice be heard in a cacophonous democracy, but those who can write have great power,” Eggers said. 

Six years after 826 opened its doors, Obama was elected president. Eggers and others used that to their advantage: “We were able to tell all of our students, ‘Look, here’s a man who became president, in large part, because of his gift with the written word.’”

Obama was such an inspiration to the children at 826 Valencia that they published a “heartwarming and hilarious book of letters” for the former president called “Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country,” Eggers said. 

“Could you help all the animals in the shelter? Because animals need love and care,” one student wrote in the book. “You could give biscuits to the dogs and yarn to the cats.”

“Obama actually read the book, and we have a picture of him in our office looking at the students’ work while he’s on the tarmac leaving Air Force One,” Eggers said. “The fact that the kids knew that they had an audience with the President was extraordinary.” 

This year alone, 826 Valencia has served more than 5,000 students so far, expanding over the years to The Tenderloin, Mission Bay and cities across the United States. Each 826 space has its own themed storefront to accompany its writing center. 

But the original idea for 826 Valencia didn’t involve a pirate-themed writing center. Zoning on Valencia required Eggers and Calegari to have a retail space. As Eggers and Calegari tore up the floors and ceiling of their space, the building started to look like an old ship. 

“And so, while we were doing this demo and renovation, somebody said, ‘I know, why don’t you sell pirate supplies?’” Eggers recalled. “We did all the necessary research, and found out that there wasn’t already an independent retailer for buccaneers.” 

And thus, the pirate supply store was born. 

The inside of 826 Valencia. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

Calegari said she was skeptical about the pirate store, but soon “became evangelical.”

It added warmth and curiosity, she said. “Adults were asking questions about what was going on,” Calegari said. 

Eggers agreed. “It created a sort of a welcome mat for people who might just be walking through the neighborhood and say, ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s going on here?’ It became a fun place to be as opposed to a sterile, mini-mall type of tutoring center.”

But perhaps even more magical than the sea shanties and artisanal peglegs are the voices 826 Valencia amplifies. Many of the students, after writing a draft of their work, receive edits from their tutors and then have the opportunity to publish their work in 826 Valencia’s anthology, 826 Quarterly. All proceeds from the anthology go toward supporting the student programs that mean so much to people in the community like Dennis Grino and his nine-year-old son, David. 

Grino has been sending his son to 826 Valencia for a year and a half. “It’s been amazing to watch him grow and develop his writing and how he expresses himself,” he said.

Today, the Mission got to hear David’s voice loud and clear. 

“In my future life, I will live in New York. I will make pizza and be President and be an activist. I will end racism and there will be no homeless people and there will be no police brutality.” David read from his poem “Future Life.” 

“Everyone will be nice to each other. There will be safety for all. There will be no poor people and no homeless cats and dogs.”

After the performance, David’s dad hugged his son tightly.

Dennis Grino and his son David. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

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Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she's not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.

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