In those first weeks of the new school year, Mari Truong wanders in a trance. She sings when she is supposed to sing, she colors and paints, she joins the other children on the playground. But there is no joy in any of it, no energy or spark. She is going through the motions of being a little girl.
One morning Mrs. Chip takes Mari and her classmates outside to plant some flowers. It is a gorgeous day, with deep blue skies and just the hint of a breeze, and most of the children are excited to be doing something new. Mrs. Chip digs a row of tiny holes in the dirt beds that line the sidewalk beside the preschool. Then she taps seeds of sweet alyssum from thin packets into the children's hands and shows them how to place the seeds in the holes.
A new year unfolds at the Southeast Asian Preschool, and so do the challenges. There is a new boy who makes only birdlike sounds when he opens his mouth and a girl who fights every rule. Mari Truong, meanwhile, returns to class only two weeks after the death of her mother. As Mari grieves, the other children respond in astonishing ways.
When her turn comes, Mari holds the alyssum seeds in her open palm. She does not move to plant them. Instead she stares at the ground, fixing her eyes on the row of freshly dug holes. Her face is furrowed, her body so still she seems to be holding her breath.
Mari has left them. She has retreated somewhere inside herself. But where? Sometimes in class, when her friends are busy playing with dolls and fire trucks, she will suddenly look up and announce that her mother is dead. Is that what's going through her mind now? As she holds the seeds, is she thinking about her mother? These are not questions easily asked of a 4-year-old child.
Mrs. Chip sees her standing there and comes over to help.
"Mari," she says, "you need to spread them over here."
At the sound of her teacher's voice, Mari returns. She crouches down and puts the seeds into the hole. But then she freezes again, looking at them in the dirt.
"Now you know what we have to do?" says Mrs. Chip. "We have to cover the seeds."
Mari does not move.
"Come on, Mari," Mrs. Chip says, speaking gently.
Mari finishes packing down the soil and stands up. Still staring at the ground, she wipes the dirt from her hands.
In the classroom next door, they are starting at square one.
Mrs. Crow and Mrs. St. Clair are struggling with the 3-year-olds who are new to the Southeast Asian Preschool in St. Petersburg. Most of these children understand almost no English; many are terrified at being away from their homes. The teachers read them stories, teach them songs, ask them questions. The children just gaze back at them. The teachers show them how to sit in a circle, raise their hands, form a line. The children say nothing, struggling to understand what they are being asked to do.
LIGHT AND SHADOWS: Mari Truong makes a sun as her class learns about space. After the death of her mother, Mari seems to be just going through the motions of preschool.
Out on the playground, one girl is so unnerved that she tries to escape, bolting toward the street. When the teachers bring the children juice and graham crackers for their morning snack, one of the other new students -- the boy who tried to get off the bus on the first day while they were traveling on the interstate -- stands dazed at the table, ignoring his food. When Mrs. Crow calls his name, trying to see if he's okay, the boy does not reply. He looks away.
"It's gonna be a long year," Mrs. Chip says.
During the opening days of the new semester, in the fall of 1994, the teachers sometimes struggle just to learn the children's correct names. A Cambodian boy in the younger class shows up at school without his enrollment papers. When the teachers ask him his name, he does not understand. So Mrs. Crow goes to the other classroom, where the 4-year-olds are working with Mrs. Chip, and finds Piarun, a boy who speaks both Cambodian and English. She takes Piarun back to the mystery child.
"Would you ask him in Cambodian what his name is?" she asks Piarun.
Piarun looks up at the teacher. "I don't know," he says.
"I know you don't know," Mrs. Crow says patiently. "But in Cambodian, would you ask him, 'What is your name?' ''
Piarun turns to the boy. They exchange a few words, and then Piarun turns back to Mrs. Crow.
"Phi," he tells her.
Most people, when they first hear about the Southeast Asian Preschool, are amazed that Mrs. Crow and the other teachers are able to communicate at all with their students. They are particularly surprised that the teachers do not know any Asian languages. But that would be almost impossible, the teachers point out, since their students come from three different countries with three different languages. To speak to these children in their native tongues, the teachers would need to know Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian, as well as dialects of each language.
The teachers are not ones to view the children with sentimentality. But when they see what is transpiring between Mari and her classmates, they are struck by the unaffected, understated grace of these children's hearts.
When they are asked about this subject, Mrs. Crow and the other teachers respond, as politely as they can, that their job is not to learn the children's languages. Their job, first and foremost, is to teach the children the language of their new country. The teachers know how this sounds to some people. Still, they do not waste much time on philosophical debates about the pros and cons of assimilation. They have no desire to take anything away from these children's cultural heritage. But the children are in America now, and they must learn English.
That is why the preschool was founded. It is why so many Southeast Asian parents send their sons and daughters to these classrooms.
The teachers begin at the only place possible, which is at the beginning. With the smallest and simplest of lessons.
They show the children how to answer when their names are called. They read them Goodnight Moon. They lead them in silly songs about animals in funny clothes; they lead them in games of Simon Says. They teach them the words for the color of the sky and the color of the leaves and the color of a stop sign. Every morning, they ask them what they had for breakfast because they want to get them talking and because they want to know if the children are getting enough to eat.
They talk about how smart the children are to already know another language, the language they and their parents speak at home. But while they are here at school, the teachers insist that the children converse only in English.
The teachers show the children how to flush the toilet and wash their hands. They lecture them on the importance of sharing. They teach them not to hit, kick, scratch or bite one another. When assaults occur, as they inevitably do with small children, they teach them how to say they are sorry and mean it.
The children are not the only ones who are learning. As the weeks pass, the teachers are sorting out the challenges before them. They are studying their new students, getting to know their quirks and temperaments.
As Mrs. Chip puts it, they are watching the children unfold.