Sinking roots in the 826 Community

The following essay was written by BAYAC AmeriCorps Program Associate Pablo Baeza on Wednesday, May 27th, shortly after a release party for Look Closer/Mira de Cerca. Look Closer/Mira de Cerca is a chapbook of fiction and nonfiction writing by students enrolled in 826 Valencia’s After-School Tutoring program.

Pablo Baeza
Photo by Ian Evans

Once more I had to say goodbye. The end of the month brought the culmination of a semester’s hard work — an end-of-year celebration for the students I teach during 826 Valencia’s After-School Tutoring (AST) program, and a release party for Look Closer/Mira de cerca, a bi-annual chapbook that contains pieces written and revised by students in the program. Students, their families, volunteers of all ages, and all who have loved our community of young learners filled the room on this night, treating themselves to a shared potluck, stories, and listening to the words and wisdom of our students, ages seven to fourteen. I, along with the rest of our audience, got to imagine twelve-year-old Camila as the mighty, hubristic sun; hear about second-grader Oliver’s journey to alien lands; and hear eighth-grader Natalia grumble about the homework that’s constantly ruining her life… and how she’s continued to persevere through even the most challenging work she’s been given.

Of course, I’d been through this before. Three semesters ago, in January 2014, I joined 826’s intern team, fresh out of college and hoping to combine my passion for social justice and community organizing with my love of language and storytelling. Along with my fellow interns I found myself sitting down to work at the Reading and Writing Tables, supporting low-income and immigrant Bay Area students as they read and thought critically about books of their choosing, and, after finishing their homework, returned to answer a variety of writing prompts ranging from “If one of your body parts could talk, which one would it be, and what would it say?” to “If you could control any element in nature, which would it be, and why?” Within a month, I realized that doing the work of being an arts educator and academic mentor meant more than teaching kids skills — it meant learning how to slowly integrate myself into the social fabric of a community. Little by little, I came to get to know the students who would come to my table. How they worked, what they liked to talk about, which questions they shied away from answering. Some students needed to draw their ideas out before they felt comfortable writing even a couple of words, while others struggled more with revising work once they’d put it down on paper, having thought they were done once they wrote it down. “How many sentences do I have to write?” became a frequent chorus at the table, a common desire to write just a few words and move on from the messiness and complexity of language. Yet, over the course of three semesters, I saw students slowly gain increasing confidence and interest in articulating their fascinating internal worlds, from the student I taught stream-of-consciousness writing to (he wrote three pages, and, amazed, found accidental phrases he’d created), to the student who went from being too shy to even speak to me to writing a multi-part saga of her world presidency (with her favorite pet being First Hamster).

I soon learned that many students in the program are first- or second-generation Latin American immigrants, like me, and would often write about their strong desire to travel. Many wrote of a desire to return to their homeland, to visit family members and eat the foods and see the landscapes they missed so much. Others charted narratives based on traveling, excitedly, to other planets, and experience feeling weirded-out by strange and unfamiliar new life forms. I, too, grew up feeling the tension of displacement. While my parents came to the United States from Chile by choice, unlike many of my students, I still lived a bi-national, bi-cultural childhood, moving several times throughout elementary school and being shaped by the intense nostalgia, curiosity, and hardship of living as an immigrant American, a foot in two continents. In my adult life I have moved from Maryland to New York to Los Angeles to the Bay Area, with a desire to find belonging and community in each and every place. A few weeks ago, I had kids draw and label maps of the things they loved about their community — many of them choosing to draw family members and beloved places ranging from the Giants Stadium to 826 itself. As the activity came to a close, I realized the incredible power and responsibility that I had as a community educator — not just to teach, but to help create sanctuary for a community needing places of refuge and support. In turn, I also began to realize what a sanctuary and community 826 Valencia has been for me. In the often airy and transient world of San Francisco, 826 provided a community to dialogue with, to teach, and to learn from. Maybe, I began to think, that’s what it means to grow roots.

This past May, I again said goodbye. In a few months, I will be moving back to New York for graduate school, leaving the address I have come to call my heart’s home here in San Francisco. Yet, as I looked around the room, I did not feel wholly weary about having to uproot once more. Rather, I mostly felt a tremendous faith and gratitude towards each and every person in the room — from my fellow staff and volunteer tutors who made the program continually possible, to the infinite grace and kindness of the families I have gotten to know, to the students themselves — who have taught me more than anyone I know about roots, community, belonging. Though I am soon off to another great adventure, my heart is full because I know that time mentoring them has truly shown me the power of writing, storytelling, and dialogue — not just as skills essential to academic and professional success, but as building blocks to truly learning the art of community resiliency, compassion, and belonging.

Pablo Baeza was an AmeriCorps member with 826 Valencia during the 2014–2015 school year, supporting our After-School Tutoring program. Every year 826 Valencia brings on board four AmeriCorps support staff for a one-year term. They are an invaluable addition to our team, without whom we would not have the resources to reach as many students, support as many teachers, or publish the volume of student writing our programs produce. We are eternally grateful to all our AmeriCorps members for their dedicated service and the generosity of spirit they’ve shared with our students during their time here.

Read more about AmeriCorps opportunities with 826 Valencia.