MAXWELL:  Alicia’s anchor

10/27/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The journalist’s instinct of taking a final look at everything in the area at the end of an interview caused me to notice 7-year-old Alicia Downing.

I was in this sugar cane-growing town in western Palm Beach County to write about an honor student at the local community college, a story that interested me because the student is the first member of her family, four generations of migrant farm workers, to attend college. Having pocketed my notebook, stashed my tape recorder, slung camera over my shoulder and walked out the door of the apartment, I noticed the tiny figure at the end of the dingy breezeway.

There, at a picnic table, sat a girl. She was gripping a book, reading as if her very existence depended on finding just the right answer to a mysterious question.

“That’s my niece, Alicia,” said Tonya Harvey, the student I had come to interview. “Alicia reads all the time. Sometimes she reads to me, and I read to her.”

I automatically walked toward the child, snapped her picture and turned on my recorder.

“What’s the name of the book you’re reading?” I asked.

“Pocahontas,” Alicia said. “She’s an Indian girl; she lived a long time ago; she saved Capt. John Smith’s life and became a princess and went to England. She’s real pretty and has long, long hair. I like her. She’s my favorite. I want to go to England, too.”

For more than an hour, Alicia and I sat in the cool afternoon shade and talked. A second-grader at Pioneer Park Elementary School in Belle Glade, she enjoys reading more than anything else.

Why reading?

“It makes me happy,” she said, innocently pointing to a picture of Pocahontas and her father, Chief Powhatan.

Even before she answered, I knew that the two of us were soul mates in many ways. As a child, I, too, had lived in Belle Glade. My family had been migrants and had cut sugar cane and picked vegetables here every season. I, too, had read most of the time.

Alicia lives with her grandmother because her mother, a farm worker with an uncertain salary, cannot adequately care for the precocious daughter. At the apartment complex where Alicia lives, drugs, violence and other problems have made life precarious for young children and teenagers alike. She does not venture far from the front door without either her grandmother or Tonya in tow.

And like thousands of other youngsters in farm working families nationwide, Alicia finds refuge in books. Reading connects her with the rest of the world _ letting her share experiences common to people everywhere, taking her to distant lands that she may never actually visit, introducing her to ideas and information that will help her shape her views.

In her immediate environment, reading helps Alicia cope with the tragedies, personal and otherwise, in a town that recently was called the “AIDS capital of the world,” where farm workers have little hope, where children too often internalize and emulate the worst of adult behavior.

Alicia, who plays with Barbie dolls, knows girls who are mothers. She also has known children who have died violently. She knows people who have contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and she knows of teenagers and adults who have died of the disease.

At school, fortunately, the innocence of Alicia gets a measure of protection, and she enjoys some control over her fate, as she and her classmates get to choose many of the books they read.

When talking about the joys of reading, Alicia uses words that flow like those of a character in a stream-of-consciousness drama: “I pick lots of books and read and read until I get tired, and when I read, I dream about going to the places I read about, and I dream about meeting some of the people and animals, too. In Danny and the Dinosaur, the little boy goes to lots of baseball games, and I like to go to baseball games. My cousin takes me sometimes.

“I read another book called Chicken to Egg, and I learned that a chicken has to stay in the egg 21 days, and I read about snakes, and I’m scared of snakes, but I like to read about them. I’m going to read some more books about snakes, and when I grow up and get a job, I’m going to buy lots of books and let kids read them, and I want to write books for kids to read.”

Reading is Alicia’s anchor.

It gives her peace of mind and helps ease the pain of being separated from her parents. Each afternoon after school, she submerges herself in the colorful pages of books _ a safe place where her imagination soars, where she can create ideal parents and friends. This, too, is an orderly place where she is protected from harm, where she experiences certainty.

The act of reading, writes Alberto Manguel in his new book, A History of Reading, is “an intimate, physical relationship in which all of the senses have a part.” Obviously, Manguel was not thinking specifically of Alicia, but he perfectly describes her relationship with her books and with life around her. Relatives and friends say, moreover, that Alicia has a raw curiosity that leads her ask questions often embarrassing to grown-ups.

Instead of leaving Belle Glade feeling my usual sense of hopelessness, I left thrilled to have discovered another soul mate. And to my list of special people to whom I give books, I shall add the name of Alicia Downing.