Page and Stage

A Bumbershoot literacy education fund-raiser will surely appeal to McSweeney's readers. But could we find a few more kids for them to teach, please?

WHO WOULDN'T WANT to work with Dave Eggers? Maybe it's not a proven pickup line on Capitol Hill, but to declare yourself a volunteer at the Seattle chapter of his 826 Valencia writing-tutoring center immediately confers membership in the McSweeney's hipster demo. Even if you don't actually write for that lit mag, you can kinda, sorta boast an association. And even if you're not a tutor, you can still buy a ticket to see Eggers, Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman, Daniel Handler, Stephin Merritt, and others in their "Revenge of the Book Eaters" tour stop at Bumbershoot, People Talking & Singing, which follows last year's very successful fund-raising launch event for 826 Seattle. More on that below. First, I visited 826 Seattle's Greenwood operation, which opened last October under the guidance of veteran educator and writer (Atomic Farmgirl) Teri Hein. To enter the teaching area means passing through the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., a retail storefront that helps contribute to the nonprofit's bottom line. Its retro sci-fi theme includes items like "Alien Brains," "Rocket Fuel," and even freeze-dried ice cream (food of the astronauts!), intended to appeal to kids and boho collectors alike. (For the latter, sorry, those cool Boeing surplus oscilloscopes are only for display.) The ray-gun whimsy continues somewhat in the classroom, with vintage maps and clocks and a variety of donated computers and furniture. But 826's after-school programs are anything but unstructured. "What we are not is day care," says Hein firmly. Pupils from 6 through high-school age are welcome, with parental approval, for free evening writing and homework/tutoring sessions. She estimates an average of about 15 kids per evening attended during 826's first year of business (despite a late start as compared to the school year), serving perhaps 1,000 students in all—a number she hopes to double thanks to more school outreach and awareness. Children come from the nearby John Marshall School and Ingraham High School. "North Seattle is not totally white affluent people," says Hein, who originally, pre-Eggers and 826, was targeting Columbia City for her center of operation. And farther—"We've had kids come in from Snoqualmie." Part of the draw, besides fun, games, movies, and snacks on Fridays, are special workshops devoted to screenwriting, theatrical writing, poetry, zines, music criticism, and more. The new program calendar will begin next week, and Hein hopes to attract more school field-trip visitors along with drop-by student clientele. That's why, during the August lull following 826's summer programs, Hein has been busily meeting educators and PTA groups—marketing the brand to those who don't read McSweeney's. Paradoxically, this is because 826 wants to increase the ratio of kids to volunteers. Of the latter, Hein says, "They're coming out of our ears," applying in droves via the Web site. "We're a tiny organization," she adds, with a paid staff of two. "Our Bumbershoot thing would never have happened [without Eggers]. We got to move ahead on the game board a little more quickly," Hein says gratefully (over $50,000 was raised at Bumbershoot '05). "We've gotten connected to the rock-star world." By which she means not just literary rock stars, but rock-star rock stars—local philanthropists Pearl Jam recently gave 826 Seattle a percentage of the take from two July shows at the Gorge. Of course, it's commendable that so many fans of Pearl Jam, the Magnetic Fields, Eggers, Vowell, Hodgman, and company are lining up to volunteer at 826. (Some are former Seattle Weekly writers now with The Stranger, and we salute that, too.) And if they attend the Bumbershoot Book Eaters show and write checks to 826, so much the better. Yet there's something telling about that demographic profile—young, educated, generous with their free time, wanting to fight the Bowling Alone syndrome—something that says they don't have children of their own. As the city's public school system shrinks and ever more Seattle families depart for the cheaper, sprawling suburbs to the north, east, and south, a fundamental problem with the 826 mission becomes apparent. Those volunteers need to get themselves to the altar, get hitched, and start producing the next generation of 826 writing students. Otherwise, who will be left to teach? bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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