The story of my attempt to grow a mustache begins in the North, in Chicago. This seems appropriate. Stories involving facial hair should have some connection to the North, I think, and Chicago has always struck me as a mustache town. Maybe it comes from seeing Mike Ditka on the sidelines of so many Bears games. But in movies about Chicago, isn’t there always a character with a mustache? Barack Obama doesn’t have a mustache, but David Axelrod does. Burt Reynolds was not from Chicago, but he should have been.
In Chicago, at a conference, I meet Holly, a McSweeney’s dispatch writer and the CEO of Capitol Letters Writing Center, a writing and tutoring center for D.C. public school students that’s inspired by (but not affiliated with) the 826 Writing Centers. It has a board, 140 volunteers, and a grant from the mayor. It leads writing workshops in schools, offers drop-in tutoring at public libraries, and is publishing a book of student essays. The only thing it lacks is a physical location. For now, it’s a center-less writing center.
Holly passes me her card, smiles and nods goodbye, and I leave our little meeting feeling inspired. The rest of the week, as I fight the downtown cold, and marvel at how the L train looks real and not real at the same time, I carry around a mental note. When I get back to D.C., I’ll volunteer for Capitol Letters.
I have the usual reasons for wanting to help teach writing workshops in the public schools. It will be fun to help kids learn to write. Barack Obama is our President and I want to get with the times. It will be a good way to meet English teachers.
But there’s also just something about the idea. When I think about it, I’m transported into a daydream in which my tutoring experience unfolds the closed routines of my life the way the sun unfolds a flower.
I’m in Chicago, at a conference in a hotel. I have a lot of time to daydream.
But the dream. In the dream, I’m a natural. The children look up at me in wonder. I am helping them learn. It’s a beautiful thing. On the street after class, I sling my backpack over my shoulder and toss a quarter to a stranger. The young man grabs the flashing coin from the air and pushes it into a pay phone. A passing woman smiles at us. It’s spring. No one is wearing a jacket.
This is how it’s going to be, I think. Unspoken conversations with new friends at pay phones. Beautiful women charmed by my generosity. Goofy dogs in city parks loping toward me in slow motion. No clouds in the sky, ever.
Back in D.C., I look up the CLWC website. The next orientation is on a Thursday evening later in the month, at the Shaw neighborhood branch of the D.C. public library. I make the trip after a long day at work. It is cold and still dark out.
The Shaw Public Library is a doublewide trailer parked in an elementary school playground. It sits next to a fenced-in basketball court equipped with lights so games can go late. When I arrive, six kids in hoodies and sweats are hustling in a game of 3-on-3.
Inside, we sit around a big table as CLWC organizers Kira, Jackie, and Jen explain the group’s mission and how to volunteer. Kira is the smallest and the most visibly enthusiastic of the three. Jackie has a great smile. Jen looks naturally studious, and wears black glasses with super-wide frames. As they talk, Eric, another volunteer, fiddles with a laptop, throwing apparently random images onto a screen. One shows honeybees swarming out of cartoon beehives. Another shows the Capitol Letters name crammed into a pencil drawing of an obelisk.
“That’s our logo,” Kira explains.
“It’s the Washington Monument,” she adds, “in case that isn’t obvious.”
The three women throw it back and forth, like hosts on a variety show. They laugh, and are super-excited, and their mood is catching. Jen explains how to pitch workshops to the curriculum committee. Jackie covers classroom etiquette. She talks in questions and sentences that end too soon.
“OK,” she says. “You have to pass a TB test? And don’t bring firearms to class? Also, don’t discipline the students? Leave that to the teachers.”
Then Kira takes the floor and explains the Mustache-a-thon.
The Mustache-a-thon is a mustache-growing-themed fundraiser. Other groups raise money by organizing 10-mile walks or marathon bike rides. The members of Capitol Letters grow facial hair. Kira explains that the rules allow any kind of mustache − walrus, handlebar, or Fu Manchu − but that beards are out. Someone asks about muttonchops.
“Permitted,” Kira says.
The women, or “prosthetic growers,” as she dubs them, will perform monthly mustache-related challenges (write and perform a mustache-inspired limerick, take a picture with a mustachioed stranger, etc.). Each participant must commit to raising $137.23. There will be weekly mustache checkups at Asylum, a trendy dive in Adams Morgan.
I can’t volunteer in the schools yet anyway. It would mean taking leave from my day job, something I can’t swing at the moment. But the Mustache-a-thon, that I can do. It seems like a good way to test the waters of this volunteer public school tutoring venture.
Plus, it sounds easy. I mean, all I have to do is not shave. How hard can it be?
For more information about the Capitol Letters Writing Center visit capitolletters.org.