Learning to scrawl 

Editor’s note: An earlier, inaccurate version of this story appeared in print. The version below has been corrected.

Listen, here’s a little good news, and couldn’t we all use it? When some gasbag starts barbering on about how rich kids are spoiled, poor kids are criminals and the world’s generally going to hell, tell the cynic about 826 Michigan.

Located on State Street in Ann Arbor, 826 Michigan is one of what will be, by year’s end, a half-dozen satellite offices of 826 National, a nonprofit organization helping young people from ages 6 to 18 develop their writing skills, free of charge. Co-founded in 2002 by teacher and educational adviser Nínive Calegari and writer Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and onetime editor of upstart journal McSweeney’s), 826 National began as a single office named for its street address: 826 Valencia, in San Francisco’s Mission District. Designed to help novice writers become practiced writers with the help of on-site tutors, 826 Valencia quickly became a kind of all-around community center for students and schools in the Bay Area, with the help of local volunteers.

The satellite locations, though rooted in their home communities’ character and resources, are patterned on 826 Valencia’s model. Among the services offered through the organization’s six chapters are after-school drop-in tutoring, in-school presentations, professional writing and graphic arts workshops, field trips, volunteer programs, college scholarships, innovative teaching awards and do-it-yourself publication projects, as well as “official” quarterly reviews.

Staffers at the Ann Arbor office are anxious to open up shop. In recent months, Program Director Amy Sumerton has been laying the groundwork and reports that so far the work seems to be doing itself. “Every single meeting we’ve come out of, we high-five each other.”

Offices in New York and Los Angeles — the first two satellite locations — seem an inevitable extension of a project like 826. The Ann Arbor location, by contrast, doesn’t. But it came about through a combination of good fortune and opportunity, largely arranged by a private donor who worked with 826 National to help fund a chapter in Michigan. That donor contacted Amy Sumerton, who was co-editing the Ann Arbor-based fiction review Orchid.

“We’re very well-located for what we’re trying to do,” Sumerton says. “The University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor, Eastern Michigan University is right here, and there’s also an extensive community college network. So we’ve been trying to arrange it so students can get course credit if they tutor regularly through our office, which is something that would differentiate us from other 826 sites.”

Sumerton, who freely cops to having been “one of those kids who was happiest off in a corner with a book,” sees 826 Michigan’s aggressively creative mandate as being, at its core, an eminently practical one as well.

“The focus is to encourage kids to be creative and to have fun with the writing process, which we’ll have a lot of room to do, because we lucked out and got this incredible office space. We’ve got a writer’s wing, where we’re going to set up a poetry room, and an ‘inspiration room,’ full of random things glued to the walls, where students can go if they’re having trouble coming up with ideas. Teaching kids about using their imaginations, thinking in new ways and seeking out new information ... that skill helps kids entertain themselves, and it feeds into everything, whether you want to be an artist or pursue a business degree.” The high level of enthusiasm they’ve encountered so far suggests that Michigan parents, educators and volunteers agree. “This is all supposed to be about inspiring kids. But right now, we’re the ones inspired.” 

To volunteer or learn more about 826 Michigan, call 734-761-3463. Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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