The following blog post was written by Bridge Year Fellow, Sophie DuBois.
This blog post is a response to every “how’s work?” I’ve left unanswered in the past month.
Spoiler: I really like it.
It’s crazy how we are so used to feeling busy that any moment of un-busyness sits like an unmarked wet-spot on the floor waiting to slip us into reflection. The particular puddle of un-busyness that soaked me this time was a quietly teary-eyed moment at my work, 826 Valencia, on Friday afternoon.
My day is spent writing, recording, and editing podcasts with children, not often older than 13. Sometimes I get to play a pirate. No, really. There’s no crappy caveat. It actually is just that sweet. And what’s sweeter is that this isn’t accidental. It is the purposeful practice of the ethic of love that 826 cultivates.
826 publishes student work often and well, but not because making more books is the goal of the organization. Unofficially, I believe 826 makes the world a better place by improving the self-image of the students who come to its centers. The polished-up-for-official-reasons goals of the organization are:
Transform students’ relationships to writing, building their confidence and pride.
Provide individualized attention and support, so students can make great leaps in learning.
Partner with under-resourced schools and communities, providing our free services to those who would not otherwise have access.
Cultivate wonder, inspiring imagination and creativity in all of our spaces and programs.
The reason books are made at 826 has little to do with their exchange value (profits) and everything to do with their use value (human need). Seeing their work in print gives students a platform for self-authorship in the most expansive sense of the term. You’re 10 and your poem about spaghetti is important enough to be put in a book. On a shelf. Next to Tolkien (I don’t know what kids read). That feeling. This is all to say that at the core of the ethic that 826 operates on, things like life, love, imagination, respect, and responsibility are the ends and artifacts are the means. Radically contradictory to the commonly accepted assertion that our lives should be at the service of such artifacts.
Okay, I’m stomping around in the un-busy puddle a little longer. I felt un-busy because “all I was doing” was playing and enjoying myself and helping a few kids a day realize their creative visions. I felt as though “all I was doing” was The Good Part and there must be some other (tedious at best and degrading at worst) part of the job to balance what felt like total love. Challenging, yes, but love all the same.
Even though by all accounts things were going well- students felt better about their writing and I felt better about life- I paused before accepting that being any busier would be a direct contradiction to that integrity. I paused before accepting that children deserve to have someone whose support is not diverted and that I deserve a life where my job is both fun and fulfilling. To accept these things without hesitation was to deny what I’d always been taught: work is a negative necessity and must somehow challenge my self-image as well as adding to it. I was paused by the notion that a workplace could be built on love.
The authenticity of the organization bleeds through in the physical space. The room I sit in now, the site of my giddiness and my un-busy puddle, is designed in the image of a tree house. It is whimsical and beautiful and every object carries lore (the fish bowl in the office has a new note everyday from our mascot, King Carl the pufferfish, assuring students that he’ll be back any day now. Yeah right. I’ve yet to see that bastard make an appearance). The street outside smells like a street outside. Kind of metallic and rotten. But when you come into 826, the high ceilings, decorated with lanterns and stars give the immediate impression that you can take a breath. The aesthetics of wonder and childhood aren’t being used in this space to give any sort of impression, they have accumulated here because the people that occupy it are wondrous and young! The treehouse design was actually proposed by a 5th grader who took classes here five years ago, when she wrote a detailed letter describing her ideal learning environment. My program leader often includes this story during field trips as a way of showing students, “yes, we really are listening”.
Words on page, metaphorical towel in hand, I’m settled in my un-busyness and drying myself off now. 826 Valencia puts action to its love by giving students the close support and listening ears they deserve and by creating a space for its personnel to give that mission their full attention. Enjoy this labor of love, at least the bits you can from afar. BELOW ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT LINKS IN THE WORLD, I THINK!!!
***I actually do know what kids are reading these days, I wrote the Tolkien bit while I was in my puddle.