Time moves differently in a classroom filled with young children. It speeds up without warning, then slows, then accelerates again and hurtles onward even faster. Sometimes, when the students are lost in concentration, building a castle or coloring a picture or looking off into the distance, time simply disappears.
Time is running out. It's early 1995, and in just a few months Mari Truong and many of the other children will leave the shelter of the Southeast Asian Preschool in St. Petersburg and plunge into the mainstream of American life. What will become of them? Three years later, as 1998 draws to a close, some answers are emerging.
Suddenly there is no hour, no clock, no world outside. Only the rhythm of their breathing and the rush of their thoughts, washing across the room in waves.
In moments like these, the teachers turn their eyes to Junedy, the boy who has such trouble speaking. They see him at one of the class tables, bent over a puzzle, wrapped in silence.
If only they knew what he was thinking. If only he could tell them.
Mrs. Crow settles into the rocking chair and opens the book.
"Now it is night," she says, beginning to read. "Do you see the stars in the sky?"
Her students sit before her in a circle, their faces turned upward, their mouths open as they gaze at the pages before them.
UP, UP AND AWAY: Blowing soap bubbles with his classmates, Junedy Uy watches the tiny balls of air float into the sky.
"Some stars are bigger than our sun. They're called red giants. Some stars are smaller than our sun. They're called dwarves . . . ''
They hold still, absorbing every word, each illustration. They are so rapt, they do not even notice as Mrs. St. Clair moves around the room, making sure that all their shoes are tied.
"Some stars get very old, and they explode, boom, like a firecracker." The children's eyes grow big as Mrs. Crow reads these words. "They're called supernovas."
In the next room, working with the older class, Mrs. Chip is handing out plastic foam balls. Each student gets two. One is big; one is small. They will paint the big ones yellow and the little ones blue.
Mrs. Chip holds up one of the little balls. "What's this?" she says.
"Earth!" someone shouts.
She holds up one of the big balls.
At the Southeast Asian Preschool in St. Petersburg, the classes are moving through the second semester of the 1994-95 school year. The sweet alyssum seeds that Mrs. Chip's students planted in the fall have taken root and are blooming in clusters of white flowers outside the classroom door. The children are growing as well. They are learning more and more English, working on their numbers and letters, learning about squares and circles and triangles, memorizing their addresses and phone numbers, learning about space and the planets, even venturing into geography.
Mrs. Chip shows them a map of the world, pointing to Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. Then she moves to a spot on the other side of the map and shows them the United States. She taps a finger on Florida, dangling in the Atlantic.
"If we were up in the sky, and we were looking down," she tells them, "that's what it would look like."
The teachers want the children to know where they are and how they fit into the larger scheme. So almost every day, they ask them to sing a special song.
We live in a house in a neighborhood.
The neighborhood is a part of the city.
The city's in a county, and the county's in a state,
part of the U.S.A.
And the U.S.A. is a good ol' place,
but it's still just a part of the place called Earth.
The good ol' Earth is out in space, a part of the universe.
Oh, we all live together,
yes, we all live together.
Oh, we all live together,
together every day.
Valentine's Day comes, and the children cut hearts out of construction paper. Soon St. Patrick's Day is here, and they learn about the king of the leprechauns and his treasures of stolen gold. When the children return from the playground, they are thrilled to find pennies scattered around the classroom, obviously placed there by the leprechaun king.
Jack, the boy who likes to pretend he's James Brown, announces one morning that he has personally laid eyes on this leprechaun.
"Where did you see him?" says Mrs. Chip.
"At my house," says Jack. "Behind the toilet, singing Jingle Bells."
Jack is the kind of child who makes a classroom come alive. He is always grinning, always singing, constantly inventing new comedy routines to amuse his classmates. He seems to be learning English on his own, honing his skills with spirited renditions of old rock songs and rhythm and blues numbers.
Like Jack, most of the children are doing well. But more than halfway through the year, the teachers wonder what will happen to the angry girl, the one who has been fighting them since the day she arrived. For a while, she seemed to be doing better. But lately she is simmering again with rage. When the class is given a coloring assignment, she sits down with her crayons and draws neatly for a few moments. But soon her anger takes over, and her hand begins to move jaggedly across the page, wielding the crayon with so much pressure that she rips the paper into pieces.
Even worse, the teachers have noticed her striking out at the other children, hitting them and taking toys from them, then denying it afterward and making up stories.
"What's happening with her world?" says Mrs. Crow. "She's lying to cover her tracks."
The teachers are also at a loss with Junedy Uy. They have had him checked for lead poisoning, for problems with his vision and hearing, for other learning disabilities. So far the testing has yielded no answers. Now the teachers are looking for other explanations. Maybe it's something simpler, they tell themselves. Maybe Junedy is not getting enough sleep or is not eating right. Whatever is wrong, time is running out. In just a few months, Junedy will be on his way to kindergarten.
Mari Truong is back on the emotional roller coaster, her spirits falling and rising and falling again, depending on the hour or even the minute. On many mornings, she wanders the playground, keeping to herself. Thankfully, her situation at home seems to be stabilizing. After months of intense grieving over the death of his wife, Mr. Truong is getting back on his feet. He has returned to work, and a family friend is helping him with Mari, making sure that she is well-fed and bathed and dressed in clean clothes.
The teachers are at a loss with Junedy. They have had him tested for problems with his vision and hearing and for other learning disabilities. So far the testing has yielded no answers.
Mari is looking forward to her fifth birthday, which is barely a week away. She is particularly excited because her father has promised to make a special treat for her class that morning.
"My birthday, my birthday!" she tells everyone at school. "My dad is going to bring egg rolls to school for my birthday!"
The big day is March 31.
That morning, when Mari arrives at class, she is beside herself, bursting with joy. Someone -- Mrs. Chip assumes it is the woman who has been helping the family -- has put rouge and lipstick on her face and placed her in a white, formal dress with ruffled lace and a red satin ribbon tied around her waist in a bow. Mari looks like a princess. She is glowing.
Her father is supposed to arrive with the egg rolls soon, when the class breaks for snack time. While they wait, Mrs. Chip and the children attend to other business. They take attendance, sing Happy Birthday to Mari and give her a pink birthday crown adorned with a big golden "5."
Mrs. Chip keeps looking toward the door, hoping Mari's father will arrive. But there is no sign of him. Unfortunately, the teachers can't delay snack time this morning; they're taking the students on a field trip to Great Explorations museum and need to get going. So they turn to their backup plan, handing out white powdered doughnuts and juice in place of the egg rolls.
At first Mari seems to take the disappointment well. She sits at one of the class tables with the other children, eating and smiling. But the facade slowly falls away. Mari's smile fades; the spark dims in her eyes. When the other children get up from the table, she stays. She takes off her birthday crown and begins to sob.