College-bound teen redefines bond

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

NEW YORK -- It was the first day of school for the girl in the plaid dress. She posed for a photo with her hands on her hips and a confident smile. There were no tears that day, no clinging, no fretting.

"Nothing," says her mother, who still marvels at her daughter's self-assuredness as she headed to class 13 years ago. "I dropped her off and she didn't even look back."

Now the parents who let go of Alana's hand as she strutted off to kindergarten in her brand new school uniform are preparing for an even bigger step.

"Yes! I'm going to college," says Alana, who will attend Brandeis University in suburban Boston this fall. The quaint, leafy campus will be a world away from the only home she's ever known -- New York's gritty South Bronx and the family's small, two-bedroom apartment in a public housing high-rise.

Even before she packs her bags, Alana is finding that going to school is about more than leaving home. It is about a graceful, young woman moving toward adulthood. It is about a giddy 17-year-old redefining the close bond she has with her parents, Annie and LeFleur Barreto.

Mom from Trinidad

Her mother, a special education teacher, knows what it's like to strike out on one's own. She left her native Trinidad in search of a better life when she was 24 and went to New York City.

Though it was difficult at times, she made a life for herself and formed a family of her own. She had Alana in 1984 and, two years later, met LeFleur, whom she eventually married.

"Alana was a really nice reflection on her and vice versa," LeFleur remembers.

They moved into LeFleur's modestly furnished apartment. It's a little cramped for three, with a living room that doubles as an office. But it's home -- and not far from the building where LeFleur's grandmother raised him after his own parents died.

"So this is my family," says LeFleur, now 50 and a vendor investigator for the New York City parks department. He very much thinks of Alana as his daughter and stepped into the void left by her biological father, who is not in contact with Alana.

LeFleur fondly remembers the days young Alana waited for him to come home from work, screaming, "Daddy! Daddy!" when he'd open the door.

Psychologists and parents expect a waning in such enthusiasm, especially in the years when teens are testing the boundaries of independence. Yet LeFleur still finds himself longing for some sign that his bond with Alana, even if it's different, will last.

"Now she lights up when she talks to her friends," he says, noting the time Alana spends with her buddies -- or chatting with them via phone and computer when she is home.

Ready already

Alana has been ready for Brandeis months.

She meets regularly with her "posse," a group of incoming Brandeis freshmen from New York. The group was assembled by the Posse Foundation, which recruits students from urban public high schools and sends them, as a group, to top colleges and universities. (The foundation helped Alana land a full scholarship to Brandeis.)

She's opened her own bank account for spending money. And as her pile of dorm room furnishings grows, so does her excitement about meeting her new roommate.

Alana's eagerness to take on the world hardly surprises her parents.

They chuckle remembering the girl who, at age 7, would hang out her bedroom window and shout their telephone number.

"Call me!" she yelled to bewildered passers-by.

By age 14, her parents started letting her walk alone to the store for a newspaper. And not too much later, she was riding the subway solo -- all bits of independence handed out slowly to ensure her safety in her crime-ridden neighborhood.

All the while she studied hard and earned grades that won her a spot at Frederick Douglass Academy, across the river in Harlem.

Several floors up from the perils of the streets, a plaque from the National Honor Society hangs on Alana's bedroom wall along with other awards. When she wasn't studying or taking modern dance or ballet classes after school, she was earning her own spending money as an intern at the Manhattan marketing offices of clothing retailer Old Navy.

The hard work, Alana says, was a means to an end -- college and a career. "I've wanted to be a lawyer since birth," she says.

Despite it all, there are days when Alana is really just a big kid. She and her mom shop together, trade clothing and snuggle while watching TV or reading The New York Times.

"But sometimes it's really intense, and my mother and I will disagree with each other about little things," Alana says.

At the end of her senior year, the point of contention was having to give a day's notice when she wanted to go out with friends, most of whom lived in Manhattan, closer to school.

"I know my mother worries because I'm the only one coming and going from this neighborhood. But sometimes it's hard," says Alana, who persuaded her mother to bend the rule this summer -- a sign, perhaps, that she is gradually letting go.

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