the girl whose mother lives in the sky
FATHER AND DAUGHTER: In the summer of 1995, Mari Truong shares a secret and a smile with her father, Linh Truong, at their home in St. Petersburg. Mr. Truong is looking at some new clothes for Mari that have been donated to the family by the Methodist organization that oversees the Southeast Asian Preschool.

On the bad days, Barbara Crow goes home and wants to hit something. It's so difficult, seeing the children in pain and not being able to take that pain away. It makes her feel helpless.

On nights when she feels this way, Barbara likes to go into her bathroom and turn on the shower. Sometimes she stays there for half an hour, standing in the stream of hot water, soaking up the steam.

She thinks about her students. She thinks about Mari's face. She tries, just for a moment, to think about nothing at all.


Each morning at the school is a world unto itself. Within the span of a few hours, the children will veer in unexpected directions, push the teachers to the breaking point and then hug them with unabashed affection. In the course of the same morning, they will destroy the bathroom, share epic stories of their lives, pledge eternal fealty to their friends, conspire against their enemies, rage with anger, burst with sorrow, fall down laughing.

One April morning, Jack -- the singer and leprechaun hunter -- is standing in line, heading for the playground. Suddenly he sees a visitor to the classroom (me, actually). He motions me over to his side.

"I'm 4," he says with utter seriousness, as though he is sharing a secret of national security. "I can whistle now."

The children scatter onto the playground. The teachers sit on the bench and watch. Mrs. Chip turns and studies Mari, who is playing in the sandbox by herself. Mari has been out of sorts all morning. Mrs. Chip goes over and tries to find out what's wrong. But Mari barely replies, apparently wishing to be left alone. So Mrs. Chip returns to the bench.

When playground time is over, Mrs. Crow's class joins Mrs. Chip and her students for the activity of the day, which happens to be something alive and slimy.

Mrs. Chip hauls a tub filled with dark soil onto one of the tables. "Let's see what's in this dirt," she says, sifting through it with a little shovel. "There are leaves . . . What else do you think I have in there?"

"Oooh!" cries one of the children, seeing something moving.

"A snake!" says another child.

"It's not a snake," says Mrs. Chip, sifting further to show them that the dirt is inhabited by a family of worms. She pulls a few of them out and hands them to the children. Some of them recoil.

"It won't hurt you," says Mrs. Crow. "Worms don't bite."

THE WONDER OF WORMS: From left, Phi Do, Hao Nguyen, Sonny Nguyen and Jack Chanthavong huddle over a family of worms, which Mrs. Chip has brought to school for the day’s lesson.

Predictably, one of the boys squeezes too hard and kills his worm. Mrs. Chip urges the children to be more gentle. "You have to be nice to the worms," she says.

It is a tiny lesson in life and death, patience, responsibility, what it's like to hold another creature's fate in your hands.

Mari keeps her distance. She watches the others holding the worms, but keeps her own hands clasped behind her back. Her face is suspicious; her mouth is tight. The darkness of the morning hangs over her.

A few minutes later, though, after the surviving worms have been put away, Mari runs up to me. Suddenly she is different. The darkness has passed. She is grinning.

"Mr. French Fry," she says, using one of the nicknames the students have given me. "I saw a dragon."

"Where did you see one?"

"At the beach."

"What kind of dragon was it?"

"It was a real dragon."

She holds out her hands and puts them together like a pair of jaws.

"An alligator," she says and chomps the jaws down on my wrist, smiling sweetly.

Next she moves her fingertips lightly up one of my forearms.

"A spider walking," she says and slips away laughing.

What has led to the sudden change? Did something make her laugh? Did she just decide she didn't want to feel sad any more this morning?

The teachers have seen Mari yo-yo like this many times since her mother died. But in the last few weeks the teachers have noticed a subtle change. Ever since the shower of tears on her birthday, Mari's moods seem to have been growing less intense. She still goes up and down. But her lows aren't as low as they used to be, and they don't seem to last as long.

She is finding her way.


Easter arrives, and the teachers show the children how to decorate eggs. A week or so later, it is time to celebrate the Laotian-Cambodian New Year. The teachers help the children make special flags to commemorate the occasion. That morning, they play Laotian music during class, serve Asian noodles for the snack, bring in a silver tureen filled with perfumed water and rose petals. Laughing, the children dip their fingers in the water and sprinkle one another, wishing their friends good luck.

"Teacher," says one boy. "It's Happy New Year!"

The students have changed so much since those first days of the school year last September, when they arrived in tears, many of them knowing scarcely a word of English. Now they count from one to 10 with ease, know their colors and shapes, sing gleefully when the teachers play Little Richard's version of Old MacDonald's Farm. Months ago, when the youngest students first stepped off the school bus, they seemed like babies. Today they have been transformed into full-fledged children.

Every year, Mrs. Crow and the others witness the same metamorphosis. And although they have clearly played a crucial role, the teachers also know that the most important thing they do is to get out of their students' way and let them grow and develop at their own rate. That's why the playground time is so important; it's also why a good chunk of classroom time is devoted to free play, where the students can build spaceships, play house, do almost anything they want. Given enough time and enough space and a safe place where they are free to be themselves, children inevitably will learn on their own.

Late that spring, something happens that confirms this once again. Something wondrous.

Junedy opens his mouth and starts to talk.


REVVING UP: Junedy rides a tricycle outside the classrooms in May 1995. Late that semester, he begins a surprising turnaround.

He does it his way. Quietly, with a hint of playfulness.

At first, Junedy will only make his overtures to Mrs. St. Clair, the most soft-spoken of the school's three teachers, the youngest and shyest, the one most like him. That April, he begins smiling at Mrs. St. Clair, flirting with her, climbing into her lap. Soon he is talking to her. Then, soon after that, he is talking to Mrs. Chip and Mrs. Crow. Then, all at once, he is talking to the other children, to classroom visitors, to anyone he meets.

As the days go by, the volume of his voice gradually rises. He is not just speaking now, but joking and chatting and carrying himself with an ease and assurance that, until a short time ago, would have seemed unthinkable.

At morning circle, Mrs. Chip is taking roll as usual. She calls out Junedy's name.

"Here!" he says.

Playtime comes, and the children ride tricycles along the sidewalk outside the classrooms. When Junedy gets his turn, he jumps aboard and careens down the walk, his head thrown back.

"Whoa!" he yells. "It go fast."

Then comes the brilliant Friday morning when the teachers take the children outside to blow soap bubbles. Junedy almost shakes with joy. He runs with the others, trying to catch the bubbles and puncture them, laughing hysterically. Then, suddenly, he is still.

He stands on the grass, transfixed as he follows a stream of bubbles riding the wind above the treetops, ascending into the endless expanse of blue.

The teachers do not know what has triggered the changes. Was it something they did, or was Junedy simply ready to blossom? The answer doesn't really matter. What's important is that he is much more likely to hold his own a few months from now, when he begins kindergarten.

Not that he is in the clear. Junedy is far from fluent in English and still has trouble forming some words. Eager to see him get extra help, the teachers have asked someone from an educational testing service to evaluate Junedy to see if he might qualify for any special speech programs when he reaches kindergarten.

When the tester visits the school to see Junedy, she tells the teachers that his difficulties are not sufficient to justify speech therapy. Mrs. Chip corners the woman.

"Don't you dare write this child off," she tells the tester. "Don't you dare write him off."

The teachers are confident that most of the older children are ready to make their way through mainstream classrooms. A few of them, it seems, are ready to take on the world. Jack has announced that when he grows up he plans to grow his hair long and embark on a career as a professional singer. He entertains the teachers with his talents almost every morning.

"You are so beautiful . . . ," he sings to Mrs. St. Clair, doing his best Joe Cocker warble, " . . . to me."

Mari is soaring. Academically, she is more than prepared for kindergarten; emotionally, she is settling onto a more even keel. She still talks about her mother, but now she lets the sadness out and moves on quickly. She is growing stronger every day.

This is never more obvious than when the teachers take the classes for swimming lessons at a city pool. As always, the first day of lessons is traumatic. Many of the children stand at the edge of the pool, trembling with fear. One girl, from the younger class, is especially petrified. An instructor tries to coax her into the water.

A FRIEND IN NEED: Mari, left, and Chieu Ho reach out to comfort Melanie Phonsouk, center, during swimming lessons at a city pool.

The girl shakes her head. "I don't want to do this," she says, sobbing. "I want to go back to my mom."

By chance, Mari is standing beside this child. Mari is not afraid of the water. She has had swimming lessons before, and a few moments ago, when it was her turn to jump into the pool and paddle toward the instructor, she did it with a smile. But now, hearing the cries of the other girl, her face darkens with concern.

Mari knows what it is like to be afraid and alone. She understands that this girl's pain is real. So she scoots close to her tearful classmate and wraps an arm around her shoulders. All at once, she becomes a mother to her young friend. She whispers in her ear. She pats her arm.

As best she can, Mari lets her know that everything will be all right.

Chapter Four: Part 1
Chapter Four: Part 3
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