Dave Eggers is a wonderful writer. I’m sure many of you love his novels or his films. But perhaps you don’t know that the creative genius of Eggers is not limited to writing; what he is doing for children is really extraordinary.
Eggers lost his parents when he was only 20 years old and had to take care of his younger brother’s education. Because of this, he learned early on about the dramatic situation of the American school system. The basic problem is the lack of individual attention; too few teachers for too many children. In every classroom you can find many different worlds (dyslexics, immigrants, bright students…) and teachers cannot adapt to all of them.
Dave thought about convincing his fellow writer friends to work with them as volunteers every now and then. But what about the children that didn’t want to attend school? Having thousands of teachers is useless if kids don’t turn up for class.
How do you convince a child that there is nothing better than sitting with a teacher to learn?
Dave found the answer by creating the Valencia project:
Imagine for a moment that you’re a pirate.
Someone will have to sell you certain indispensable items: an eye patch, a wooden leg, a hook, pills against the black fever… Now imagine that you’re a super hero. What happens if your cape gets broken? Where can you buy your boots? And what about a jar of super powers? Hoovers that suck up the bad guys? Masks? And if you were a robot? Who would replace your bolts? Where would they sell special anti-squeaking oil?
All these shops actually exist. . A shop for pirates in San Francisco, for robots in Michigan, for super heroes in Brooklyn, for time-travelling in Los Angeles, for astronauts in Seattle, for secret agents in Chicago…
As you can imagine they are amazing spaces. Kids flock like flies and, once inside, the most important thing happens. All of them hide a secret: at the back of every store, behind the capes, masks and swords, several volunteer teachers wait for the kids and they invite them to sit down and write stories.
This is not school. The kids who are in the “I don’t care about school” phase, aren’t embarrassed to go there. Because there is nothing “cooler” than reading in a spaceship or studying next to a time machine.
Thanks to the Valencia project, thousands of kids have learned to read and to love writing. Some have even compiled their stories in books that they sell to raise funds.
Valencia is Eggers’ masterpiece, the story of which he is most proud. In 2008, the project won the Ted Prize. Here you can watch the thank-you speech (with subtitles in several languages) where he recounts his adventure.