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Reading off the job

Published Aug. 31, 2005

They tune up cars, fix leaky faucets and get your air conditioner to blast beautiful cold air again. These are hands-on kind of folks, workers who feel at home building, farming, grooming . . . and reading.

Join us as we meet a few of the Tampa Bay area's blue-collar readers.




If you can't figure out something or need something fixed around our school, there's only one person to track down _ our "jack of all trades," Earl Bailey. At 73, Mr. Earl, as everyone calls him, has been with St. Paul's School for 12 years, but he has been a building contractor for 53 years and has done a lifetime's worth of projects and work for the school.

He has done everything from heading up the maintenance department to coordinating special projects involving buildings and contractors. He also taught many St. Paul's students the art of woodworking by helping them construct their own wooden treasure trunks, handmade in much the same way as they did in the 1700s.

"I love the mingling with kids and working with the students, helping them to see how to use their education out in the world," Mr. Earl says.

You may not think that reading plays a big part in the life of such a hands-on man, but it does.

When he was young, Mr. Earl was not encouraged by his parents to read. In fact, he never really liked to read until he was married and had a family. A book that changed his life was Jeremiah A. Denton's true story about an American prisoner of war in Vietnam, When Hell Was In Session.

"The book taught me a lot about bravery and courage, and I was thrilled years later to actually meet Mr. Denton and hear his stories in person," he says. One book led to another, and soon Mr. Earl was reading on a regular basis.

Mr. Earl says his recent reading has included Rick Bragg's non-fiction book about his grandfather and hard times in the South during the Depression, Ava's Man.

Mr. Earl also reads technical manuals for building. His favorite was actually written in the 1800s _ Steel Framing Square. The author was one of the first to introduce the concept of how to frame with a steel square, which changed the building industry forever.

Currently, Mr. Earl is brushing up on an incredibly thick book called Florida Building Code for 2002. "I have to be very familiar with all of the codes, especially since we are planning some new building projects at St. Paul's," he said.

"Books open up new avenues of thought and understanding, and a way of life that you'd never know about if you didn't read," he said. "Take time to read, always."

Justin Leiser, 13, is in eighth grade at St. Paul's School in Clearwater.



"Letters are like symbols. Like the different branches and leaves on a tree," says Mary Rybicki,, a farmer in St. Petersburg. At 47, Rybicki has earned a living raising and selling vegetables and livestock for nearly three decades. She tries to produce 12 goats and three sheep a year.

A native Floridian, Rybicki attended Azalea elementary and middle schools and graduated from Dixie Hollins High School in 1974.

Reading has played an important, yet difficult role in Rybicki's life. As a child, Rybicki was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects a person's ability to read. She became a reader through courage and strength.

"I was artistic, so my mom taught me how to read using that talent," Rybicki says. "(Reading) opened up new worlds for me."

Even before she knew how to read, Rybicki and her brother would lounge on the living room floor on Saturday mornings and glance through their father's National Geographic magazines, some from as early as 1923. "You know how the saying goes: A picture can represent a thousand words," she said. "Well, it can, because after looking at all of those pictures, I already had an idea of what the story was about.

"Now I use reading as an escape and as a relaxation," Rybicki says. Her computer has helped her cope with dyslexia. "Spell check helps, so I can go back and correct."

One of Rybicki's favorite books is Leaves of Gold, a collection of poems by various writers. Her current favorite book is Who Moved My Cheese, by Dr. Spencer Johnson.

"All of my information is acquired by reading because I don't have a mentor or another farmer to show me," Rybicki says. The first book she ever read about farming, and one that inspired her to keep up this difficult job, was Beef Cattle in Florida, a publication of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"All knowledge is acquired by reading," Rybicki says.

_ Hayley Germack, 13, is in eighth grade at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg.



If you think that all veterinary technicians do is sit at a desk in the waiting room and take calls or hold animals during medical exams, then you are in for a big surprise. Jenica Haraschak, a student in the Veterinary Technology program at Seminole High School, is passionate about reading.

When she's not taking care of animals, which is what she loves most about being a veterinary technician, she's reading about them _ researching all she can about the animals in her care.

The vet tech program at Seminole High trains people to assist veterinarians. Yes, that involves cleaning up after animals, something Jenica doesn't exactly love, but it's part of being a vet tech.

Jenica, a 16-year-old junior, not only takes all the traditional classes needed to graduate, but also attends classes at a local veterinarian's office. She decided on a career as a vet tech because she wants to help animals.

"I wanted to take care of them, feed them, and groom them," she says. "That's pretty much what we do as vet techs."

After a day's work, Jenica likes to curl up with a good book. "I read so I have something to do. Most every night I read a book or a magazine. It increases my vocabulary, and it helps me comprehend and understand things.

"The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is my favorite book because I just really fell into the plot of the book, and I loved it," she says. "After we finished reading it (in class), I went out and bought the book."

The book currently on her desk in English class is A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

Jenica points to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities as the book that has made the greatest impact on her life. "We had to read it in ninth grade. The book was just so eye-opening. It was very realistic," Jenica says. "I bought that book, too."

When Jenica was a little girl, her parents read her Dr. Seuss books. "My favorite one was Green Eggs and Ham," Jenica says.

Will she be taking care of Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham? Probably not. But Jenica will most likely care for cats, dogs, rabbits and maybe even tigers someday.

_ Mary Ellis Glymph, 12, is in sixth grade at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater.


About this series

Today the Newspaper in Education classroom series continues Reading Matters, a weekly look at books and the people who read them. The first Monday of each month will feature the "YOU GOTTA READ THIS!" Book Club. Join the club by reading the selections listed on this page and comparing your thoughts with their ideas.

Reading Matters will also share monthly looks at "WHO'S READING WHAT?" and people who do what they do to "CELEBRATE THE LOVE OF READING."

About the author

Holly Atkins, a national board certified teacher, loves to read and write. She is a teacher at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and has been an instructor at the Poynter Institute's Writers' Camp. She was the author of last year's Newspaper in Education series, The Wonders of Florida. You can e-mail your comments to her at


MARCH: Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

After tragically losing her best friend, a young woman closes herself off from the world, only to be drawn out by a controversy at a nearby Indian camp. As the photographer for a newspaper, she learns a great deal about life and discovers another side to herself.

APRIL: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

When an Arab-American girl moves from St. Louis to Jerusalem, she is forced to deal with prejudice and religious intolerance. To compound matters, she begins a relationship with a Jewish boy.

MAY: Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury

This book is an unforgettable story of courage, survival and friendship as a young boy deals with problems of racism against Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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For more information about the books, including authors' Web sites, go to