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When it all began…

October 20, 2007

Photo by Mike Ritter

Sci-fi on the side

Imaginary creatures from Bigfoot to Nessie are inspirational aids at a new writing center for youths

A peculiar building in Egleston Square will open soon under an equally peculiar name: the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute.

Flanked by ordinary shops, its futuristic front already stands out on Washington Street where Roxbury meets Jamaica Plain. When its tall glass doors open, the sights inside will be stranger still. Sales clerks will hawk paranormal paraphernalia such as unicorn tears, and people dressed as scientists will busy themselves in apparent research at the city’s center of cryptozoology, the study of creatures that may not be real.

But things aren’t always as they seem.

The “cryptozoologists” will be volunteers in character; the specimens in jars of murky liquids, props. The entire sci-fi scene at 3035 Washington St. will be a facade for an imaginative, hands-on writing center called 826 Boston.

826 Boston opens to students next week for free weekly workshops held in an orange-walled room in back; the store will open in a few months. The center is the seventh chapter of 826 National, a nonprofit founded by publisher and author Dave Eggers and teacher Ninive Clements Calegari five years ago in California. Their flagship site in the Mission District of San Francisco took its name from its address at 826 Valencia St., and the even numbers stuck.

At each 826 center for tutoring, workshops, and writing, volunteers kick-start the creative engines of students ages 6 to 18 and strengthen their expository writing skills. Volunteers come from a variety of fields – poets, filmmakers, journalists – and their expertise shapes the program. In Brooklyn, radio and film workshops are central, and reflect the background of volunteers, Eggers said in an interview. 826 Valencia offers many English-as-a-second-language classes to students in San Francisco’s predominant Latino neighborhood, he said.

“It’s a very flexible model,” he said. “It’s shaped by the very particular character of every neighborhood.”

Four activities constitute an 826 program: school field trips to the writing lab; after-school tutoring; workshops designed by volunteers, such as screenplay writing sessions, that ring of apprenticeships; and in-school sessions where tutors collaborate with teachers in the classroom, working one-on-one with students.

“We’re incredibly pro-teacher and pro-teacher authority and autonomy,” Calegari said. “We don’t try and tell teachers what to do. We tell teachers how they can be more effective, and provide the resources.”

Kevin Feeney, who was Eggers’s first student at 826 Valencia and is now a Harvard undergraduate, was instrumental in the founding of 826 Boston. “It seemed like a completely natural and fitting idea,” said Eggers, who has family in Boston. Eggers runs the offbeat literary website and publishing company McSweeney’s and wrote the bestseller “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

The curious facade comes with the territory. The lease Eggers signed for the flagship center in San Francisco mandated he use the space for retail, so Eggers split the space in two, with the writing lab in back and a tongue-in-cheek shop out front – the Pirate Supply Shop, which sells pirate flags, glass eyes, and other props for swashbuckling seafarers.

Besides kindling the imaginations of young visitors, said Calegari, the shop is an effective way to diversify income. “In December of last year alone, the pirate store brought in $36,000,” she said.

Almost every center has a strange storefront. Brooklyn boasts the Superhero Supply Co., and Seattle has the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. For Boston, it’s the Bigfoot Research Institute selling paraphernalia associated with Bigfoot, Nessie, and Mongolian Death Worms, because to Daniel Johnson, executive director of 826 Boston, hunting for imaginary beasts is not unlike writing – in each case, he said, we grasp at an elusive truth.

Johnson, a veteran teacher and Chicago transplant, was hired by a board of directors in May to lead Boston’s 826. The mock institute, inspired by the site’s scientific gleam, will help excite the senses of students, he said. “We want [them] to really reach for the language to describe the world around them and also the world of their imaginations,” he said.

Although the unusual storefront may attract the most attention, work will also be done in public schools.

“Teachers seek our support,” said Calegari. “[They] will individually e-mail and say, ‘I have a huge writing project.’ ” So volunteers take to the classroom.

To master outreach in a city of 145 public schools, the staff at 826 Boston borrowed a trick from Valencia. “We’ve been taking fliers out to schools in the neighborhood,” said Casey Robertson, an Emerson College graduate who is interning with 826 Boston. “We’ve been giving them to principals, putting them directly in teacher’s mailboxes.” Already, she said, teachers have responded – to the outreach and to 826’s illustrious history.

In Boston, 826 has reached out already to Rafael Hernandez K-8 School, Eggers said, and next week it will launch a college and career preparation seminar for seniors of Greater Egleston Community High School. Teachers from the school will accompany volunteers in leading the four-week seminar at 826’s lab on Washington Street, said headmaster Julie Coles.

“It’s really something special that we can just walk up the street,” Coles said. “It extends how we look at where education can happen.”

Eggers said Boston has a unique resource that could put its 826 on par with the first and biggest center: college students. “The young energy is so crucial,” he said. 826 Boston has already signed up 150 volunteers, many of them from local colleges.

Robertson began her internship in January after working last summer at 826 Los Angeles, and she said she is hooked on making a difference in the lives of young students.

“It’s definitely expanded my horizons,” said Robertson, who now is considering a teaching career. “It’s made me realize this need exists everywhere.”

Junia Yearwood’s needs were met this spring when 826 launched a pilot program in her classroom at English High School in Jamaica Plain. “They came in, two or three of them, religiously on Fridays,” said Yearwood, a teacher for 25 years who is now on the board of directors for 826 Boston. “I’ve had people come in before, but not people who specifically are interested in just sitting and helping kids write, one-on-one,” she said.

When the pilot program began this spring, her students were incensed over negative publicity the school was receiving, Yearwood said. So when 826 volunteers suggested the essay topic of “high school,” some wielded their pens in defense of their experience.

“I wrote about how my teachers in high school have made my life this year, and how getting along with them can make you want to come more to school,” said Wilcania Baez, 18, a senior.

Three English High School students who participated in the pilot program read their work aloud at an 826 Boston fund-raiser at the Berklee Performance Center last month. The event, “Revenge of the Book Eaters,” combined comedy, literature, and music, and the students shared stage and audience with Eggers and indie-rock bands Mates of State and Of Montreal.

Yearwood said her students’ work improved when they knew it would be heard beyond the classroom. “Somebody else was listening,” she said. “Something someone else was going to hear.”

Across the country, the audience makes all the difference at 826, Calegari said.

“If you do a project that mimics real life, if you treat them like real authors . . . their engagement in the project increases,” she said. She added that 826 publishes the work of its students – in elegant small chapter books, short-story compilations, and poetry books, some with forewords by celebrities, politicians, and authors. “We just try and raise the stakes constantly.”

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