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Pain takes flight

Even if you ask her straight out, Olga Barnes would never say it herself.

Others might point to the 56-year-old Spanish teacher _ who is nearing her 30th year at Chamberlain High School in Tampa _ as an inspiration for a key figure in Connie May Fowler's heart-rending novel, Before Women Had Wings.

But Barnes, who grew so close to Fowler at Chamberlain that she eventually became her godmother, could never be so bold.

Such presumption might stain a nearly 25-year friendship between the two _ something Barnes isn't about to chance. Besides, given her maternal feelings toward Fowler, it would feel too much like taking credit for her own daughter's success.

"The character of Miss Zora is probably based on a lot of people that were warm to her and nurtured her," says Barnes, laughing nervously. "I would be too cocky to think it was all based on me. But when you're a teacher, you can only hope you touch children in that way."

Still, a few minutes spent watching the ABC adaptation of Fowler's book, starring talk show queen Oprah Winfrey as the principled, caring Zora, reveals the same sort of chemistry that Barnes shares with Fowler even now.

"Anybody who knows Olga and sees the movie or reads the book knows her essence is in that character," Fowler says from her home in Alligator Point. "She's the queen of small, everyday kindnesses . . . which can make all the difference to a child."

Wings stands as a painfully autobiographical work, outlining Fowler's hardscrabble childhood spent in the Traveler's Motel along Nebraska Avenue in 1960s-era Tampa.

In the book, a teenage Avocet "Bird" Jackson narrates a harrowing story of family dysfunction. Her life from ages 6 to 9, already marred by an alcoholic, philandering father and equally non-functioning mother who fought each other constantly, heads into a tailspin when the father kills himself.

Bird's desperate mother, Glory Marie, moves the family from their rural Florida home to Tampa, where she gets a job and a broken-down trailer at the Traveler's Motel. But anguish and the liquor bottle push Glory Marie into a cycle of verbal and physical abuse that takes an increasingly painful toll on Bird and her sister, Phoebe.

Though the details vary, it's basically the story of Fowler's life spent growing up with her sister, Deidre, and mother, Lee May.

Fowler's father died of a heart attack and there was no Miss Zora to protect her from Lee May's beatings, but much of what Bird endures in Wings comes from the author's painful, personal history:

Her parents' nightly brawls. Her father holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide. The belt that left scars on her back. The soul-killing insults her mother hurled like razors, assuring the girl, "You killed your father. It's your horrible ways that caused him to die."

It's a horrible reality of which even Barnes remained unaware until Wings' publication last year. "When I read the book, that was my greatest shock," the teacher says, her voice suddenly somber. "(I) feel a little sad . . . you know, "How could I not see this?' But she's said, "When this happens to you, you're very good at covering it up.' "

"That's typical of kids who are abused," says Fowler, now 39. "We try to hide it, because to reveal it would betray the abuser . . . which, in our messed up heads, is the only person who really loves us."

Barnes, a daughter of Cuban immigrants who was raised in Ybor City, had been teaching in Tampa schools for 10 years when Fowler joined her 10th-grade Spanish class at Chamberlain in 1973.

The teacher was impressed with the bright strawberry blond teen with a gift for putting images into words. "We would share secrets and girl talk . . . about who she had a crush on or her dreams," Barnes says. "Our relationship transcended ethnicity and the times."

Fowler's sister, now teaching second grade at Miles Elementary School in Tampa under her married name, Deidre Hankins, says they were hardly aware their lives were particularly rough.

"We had no experience . . . we didn't think we were any different than anyone else," says Hankins, who is six years older than her sibling. "After having lived in such a violent household when my father was around . . . by the time we came to the Traveler's Motel, we thought we were living in high cotton."

The sisters would grow to adulthood before they could even put a name to their mother's problem: alcoholism. "If she would get angry about something, she would fly off the handle and start hitting and beating, and you never knew when that was going to happen," Hankins says. "The punishment never fit the crime, you know?"

Though her older sister says she often dealt with the pain by blocking it out, and remains unable to recall many details, Fowler sought to exorcise childhood demons by writing about them.

"I don't think a day went by when I was writing the book or the teleplay that I wasn't crying my eyes out," Fowler says. "I keep wondering, "When is this going to stop affecting me?' But I've been able to turn it into something that's useful and positive."

Wings was published last year, long after her mother's death, in 1978, from liver damage. The book's mix of drama and Florida imagery, with an incisive, innocent child's narration, drew the interest of Winfrey's Harpo Productions, which purchased the rights to make a film version.

The star decided to make Wings the first production of a six-picture deal with ABC in which Winfrey would offer hand-picked material under the banner "Oprah Winfrey Presents."

"I love the idea of women being strong enough to fly off and take care of themselves in a world that wasn't created for us to do that," Winfrey said in a press release, explaining what attracted her to the story.

Fowler says that, when Winfrey first called, she introduced herself as a "friend of Bird." "Remember that little girl who won the spelling bee? That's what I was like . . . jumping up and down like I was on invisible pogo stick," the writer says of her reaction to receiving Winfrey's call.

"As much as she liked the Miss Zora character, I think the character she really understood was Bird," adds Fowler, referencing Winfrey's own well-publicized abusive childhood. "She knows what it's like to grow up feeling unloved and worthless . . . a common trait among us overachievers."

Fans of the book may be disappointed to learn that the TV movie retains little of Fowler's vivid Florida imagery. There are none of the biker bars or minimarts along Nebraska and there's no mention of the University of Tampa (in the book, Bird compares the school's distinctive spires to Hershey's Kisses), probably because it was filmed in California.

What remains are Fowler's vivid characterizations of common folks struggling to find dignity in their lives, themes reflected in her earlier books, 1992's Sugar Cage and 1994's River of Hidden Dreams.

Also remaining is the strength of Miss Zora, who eventually takes in Bird and Phoebe while their mother straightens out her life. She stands as the TV movie's central focus, fleshed out by a sterling cast that includes Ellen Barkin and Tina Majorino as Bird.

"In some ways, it's too bad our ending wasn't like (the book's)," says Hankins, who married a Tampa schoolteacher, staying close by her mother and sister. "It sounded like the mother (in the book) was getting the help she needed. That never happened with our mother."

In spite of their tough upbringing _ or perhaps because of it _ Fowler and Hankins made better lives for themselves, graduating from the University of Tampa, starting careers and building more stable families.

It's a success that makes sense to both sisters, who knew their mother only wanted the best for them, even if she didn't always know how to help them get it.

"A lot of people had harder lives than Deidre and I," Fowler says. "I guess you either use it for positive change or a crutch."

AT A GLANCE: Before Women Had Wings airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: A+. Rating: TV-14.