the girl whose mother lives in the sky
CHAPTER TWO GOOD MORNING, MRS. CHIP
STORY BY THOMAS FRENCH • PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHERIE DIEZ • OF THE TIMES STAFF
Mrs. Chip and her students sing songs
RAISE YOUR HANDS: Peggy Chlapowski, better known as Mrs. Chip, leads her class during circle time at the Southeast Asian Preschool in St. Petersburg. Every morning, Mrs. Chip and her students sing songs, jump up and down and immerse themselves in the language and culture of America.

 

The yellow bus pulls up just before 9. The doors slide open with a hiss, and the children step out and move up the sidewalk in single file. A few of them flash a smile and call out a greeting, but most are silent and somber, their faces giving away nothing.


At the Southeast Asian Preschool, the year is racing by. There are small victories -- the boy who does not speak appears close to a breakthrough -- but hanging over the school is the sorrow of Mari Truong, the 4-year-old girl whose mother is fighting leukemia. The teachers are accustomed to preparing their young students for life. Now they must find a way to help Mari face the reality of death.
The teachers are waiting for them at the doors to the classrooms. The older students, the 5-year-olds who are headed for kindergarten in a few months, follow Mrs. Chip into one room. The younger ones, who have another year to go at the preschool, stay in the other room with Mrs. Crow and Mrs. St. Clair.

In Mrs. Chip's room, the older children put away their backpacks and plop onto the carpet in a circle in front of their teacher. Now they look up at her, waiting.

Time to begin.

They stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They practice their counting, jump up and down, practice their lefts and rights, sing a song about the universe and another about the alphabet.

"Good morning, Thida," Mrs. Chip says to one of the girls.

"Good morning."

Mrs. Chip turns to one of the boys. "Good morning, Alak."

"Good morning," he says. Then, eyes wide, he makes an announcement.

"Saw a rabbit," he says.

Mrs. Chip grins. "You saw a rabbit at your house?"

The boy nods.

Mrs. Chip moves on. Carefully, she goes around the circle, greeting each child and making sure that each child greets her in return. All goes well until she comes to the girl with the metal teeth. She is staring into space, drifting.

"Good morning," says Mrs. Chip, calling out the child's name.

The girl does not answer. She is looking toward her teacher, but does not seem to really see her.

"Say, 'Good morning.' ''

Still no answer.

"Are you ready for a good day?" says Mrs. Chip, hoping for something.

No answer.

***

The semester is vanishing before their eyes.

It is May 1994. With just a few weeks remaining until summer, the teachers at the Southeast Asian Preschool are growing increasingly worried about the girl with the metal teeth. She seems more distracted than ever. She is constantly hungry. She comes to school dirty. Mrs. Chip and Mrs. Crow encourage her to bathe every day, but she tells them her mother does not like her to take baths.

"My mom won't let me," she says.

A woman from United Methodist Cooperative Ministries -- her name is Vanessa Petrie, she's the director of the program that runs the preschool -- has been to the girl's home to talk to the mother. But the talks don't seem to help.

This late in the school year, there is little more that the teachers can do for this child. After years at the preschool, they have learned to accept their limitations. This is a lesson that all teachers must face. Mrs. Crow and Mrs. Chip have talked about it with the teachers at Lad 'n Lass, the mainstream preschool that shares the same grounds at Lakewood United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. At both preschools, the teachers know that the only thing they can do is to give their best to their students in the time they have with them. Then they have to let them go.

And that's what Mrs. Chip and the others must do now in the case of the girl with the metal teeth. She will return to the preschool for a few more weeks of summer school, and then they will send her off to kindergarten and hope she gets the help there that she needs.

The boy who does not speak, meanwhile, shows signs of progress. He has begun to play occasionally with the other kids; once in a while, he even says a few words or sings. One morning, when he's appointed line leader and is taking his class to the playground, he actually yells.

"Are you ready?" he cries.

"Yes, we're ready!" the others yell back.

The teachers would like more time with this boy -- he is in the younger class and is due back for one more year of preschool -- but they are not sure his mother will send him. When the teachers talk to her about her son's silence, she seems embarrassed. Though this woman has not said so, she seems to believe that the problem is one the teachers are imagining.

pMari Truong lies on her towel
DAYDREAMS: Mari Truong lies on her towel during rest time. As her mother’s condition grows worse, Mari often disappears inside herself.

Mrs. Crow and the other teachers are watching Mari Truong closely, too. The situation at home, where Mari's mother is battling leukemia, is growing more grave. According to Vanessa Petrie, who keeps close touch with the family, attempts are still being made to arrange bone marrow transplants from Soi Lieu's brothers in Vietnam. But the Vietnamese government is insisting that the brothers submit to medical tests, showing their compatibility as donors, before travel visas will be granted. By the time the red tape is dealt with, it might be too late for Soi Lieu.

Mari is scheduled to spend one more year at the preschool before graduating to kindergarten. The teachers wonder how they will help Mari if her mother dies. They wish they could spare her from that loss. But they can't. All they can do, for the moment, is to keep holding her.

The last few weeks go quickly. Mari and the others sing their songs, paint pictures, dig into the costume box and dress up as flappers, firefighters, cowboys and cowgirls. Then one day, something happens.

Something the teachers don't see coming.  

Chapter One: Part 3 Chapter Two: Part 2
Introduction
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