The girl with the metal teeth is gone now; so is the boy who stood with Mari at his mother's wedding several months ago. Both have moved on to kindergarten along with the other 5-year-olds from last year's class. Also missing is the 4-year-old boy who spent so much of the previous year resisting the teachers' efforts to coax him into speaking. On the first day of class, when this boy is due back for another year at the preschool, Mrs. Chip looks for him in vain.
COLD AND WARMTH: On a chilly morning in February 1995, the children cluster around Mrs. Crow outside the preschool.
"He didn't get on the bus today?" she asks the boy's friends.
They can only shrug. But in the days that follow, it becomes clear he is not returning. Vanessa Petrie, the woman from United Methodist Cooperative Ministries who works with the families, finds out what happened. As she and the teachers had feared, the boy's mother has chosen not to return him to the Southeast Asian Preschool. Instead, she is sending him to a mainstream preschool.
Mrs. Chip and the other teachers wonder what will happen to this boy. He struggled here, among children from similar backgrounds. How will he fare in a classroom where he's expected to keep up with children who are fluent not only in English but in the ways of American culture? It is out of their hands now.
They have plenty of other children to worry about. In the younger class, the teachers are paying close attention to the boy who made the scene on the bus. He is both utterly charming and quietly subversive. He acts as though he does not understand a word of English. But the teachers, remembering how he spoke to the bus driver, are not fooled.
"I know you talk English," Mrs. Crow tells him one day.
The boy just stares at her. But the next morning, out on the playground, he apparently decides there is no point in pretending any longer. "I'm Aladdin!" he shouts, hanging from the monkey bars.
Mrs. Crow and Mrs. St. Clair are also working hard with a girl in the younger class. She is an angry child, prone to tantrums. She has fought almost every rule, has made it clear that she believes she is in charge. One day, she looks at one of the teachers and says, "F--- you."
Nothing makes this girl happy. When the teachers give her tape, she tosses it in the wastebasket. When they hand out crayons so the students can color, she throws hers to the floor.
"Mommy," she says. "I want Mommy."
Next door, in Mrs. Chip's class, there is a new student who appears to have trouble speaking any words at all. His name is Sokjunedy Uy, but everyone at school calls him Junedy. He is 4 and comes from a Cambodian family.
Junedy (pronounced June-dee) presents a different challenge from the boy who would not speak last year. That child clearly knew how to talk, but was extremely reluctant to do so. Junedy seems to have difficulty forming words. The problem is not the language barrier; he follows directions, responds to his name. When he is asked to speak, though, he falters. He opens his mouth and moves his lips. But all that comes out are tiny sounds, similar to the chirping of a bird.
GENERATIONS: Junedy Uy shares a moment at home with his mother, Kim Roeun, who came to St. Petersburg from Cambodia.
Trying to understand, Mrs. Chip has asked Mrs. Petrie about Junedy's home life. Mrs. Petrie tells her that Junedy comes from a solid home with two loving and attentive parents. What, then, is wrong? Is Junedy merely shy, or does he have some sort of a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to talk? Mrs. Chip does not know. But her concerns about Junedy go beyond the speech problems. He is not difficult; if anything, he is an even-tempered boy, ready to please and do as they ask. Still, he seems passive and withdrawn. Most mornings he does not smile.
But that fall, the child who requires the most attention is Mari Truong.
Always, the teachers worry about Mari.
She is a special case, even in the eyes of the other children. For most of them, Mari's sadness is too deep and too consuming to comprehend. They have heard that her mother is dead, but they are too young to completely understand this simple fact and what it means for Mari. Still, they know something has gone terribly wrong. They see her moving numbly through their mornings together in class and on the playground. They notice her crying, again and again, with an enduring sorrow that goes far beyond the usual outbursts common at a preschool. Though they do not have the words to articulate it, they sense the profound change that has been wrought inside Mari and that now runs through everything she does.
YOUNG MOTHER: Mari Truong nurtures a baby doll at the preschool, feeding the doll with a bottle.
The teachers know this because they have seen how the students are acting toward Mari.
From the first day of school, the other children have treated Mari with the utmost tenderness and respect. They do not press her or ask hard questions. When she needs to be by herself, they leave her alone. When she needs a friend, they invite her to join them in the sandbox to bake pies and build castles. If they see her eyes brimming with tears, they take her hand and whisper into her ear, saying whatever children say when adults cannot hear them.
Mrs. Crow and Mrs. Chip and Mrs. St. Clair have worked with preschool students for years. They are not ones to romanticize children or view them with sentimentality. But when they see these things transpire between Mari and her classmates, the teachers are struck by the unaffected, understated grace of these children's hearts.
As the weeks go by, Mari displays a grace of her own. At age 4, she is confronted with a loss that most children -- indeed, many adults -- cannot envision. Yet somehow she finds the strength to face it squarely.
"My mom's dead," she says to Mrs. Chip as they sit together at a classroom table. "She's never coming home."
Mrs. Chip reaches across the table and squeezes her hand. "Yes, Mari, I know."
At home, everything in Mari's life has fallen apart. Her father, Linh Truong, is lost inside his own grief. He has not been able to return to work; for the moment, he and his six children are living on food stamps and on donations provided by the Methodist ministries program. Mr. Truong is struggling in other ways as well. He and Soi Lieu were married for 19 years, and she was the one who raised the children and took care of the house. Now that she is gone, he is left to do these things on his own. Not surprisingly, he is overwhelmed; at this point, he has almost nothing inside himself to give Mari. On some mornings, she comes to school with her hair unwashed and her clothes dirty.
The teachers help Mari as much as she will allow them. She has always been a fairly independent child. She does not like to be smothered with affection, has never held still under a constant shower of hugs. In deference to these wishes, Mrs. Chip and the other teachers give her space when she needs it. But now she comes up to them almost every day, wanting to be held. They take her into their laps and wrap their arms around her and sit with her for as long as she lets them.
In all their years in the classroom, the teachers have never been called upon to help a student through the death of a parent. Since Soi Lieu's funeral, they have been trying to understand how they can best help Mari through the year ahead. They have found a book about girls who grow up without their mothers and have read it closely, searching for clues.
According to this book, girls who are young when their mothers die need strong female role models to help them get through childhood. What these girls need, the book says, are surrogate mothers. So Mrs. Crow and Mrs. Chip and Mrs. St. Clair agree that they will not just be Mari's teachers. As best they can, they will step in for Soi Lieu.
One day Mari comes to school on the verge of crumbling. She is in need of a bath, wearing dirty clothes, lost.
The teachers take one look at her and decide that she needs some personal attention. They find her some clean new clothes -- the school always has a supply on hand -- and ask her if she would like to spend the morning with Mrs. St. Clair at her house. Mari says yes and eagerly climbs into her teacher's station wagon.
Mrs. St. Clair is the perfect choice for this outing. She is the quietest of the three teachers, the one with the most soothing voice and the softest touch with the children.
Together they drive to the house, Mari growing more excited with every moment. Mrs. St. Clair tells her that she has a dog named Gertrude who will be waiting for them.
"Will it bite me?" Mari asks.
"No. She won't bite you."
Once they arrive, Mrs. St. Clair introduces Mari to Gertrude and then runs a hot bath for her, filling the tub with bubbles. She washes Mari's hair and lets her look over in the bathroom mirror, so she can see her hair filled with white suds. Mari smiles and soaks in the water.
After she gets out and gets dressed, she tours her teacher's house, taking in every detail. She comes to the bedroom of Mrs. St. Clair's daughter and gazes in wonder at the collection of Barbie dolls, scattered across the bed and on the floor. Arrayed before her is a Safari Barbie and a Southern Belle Barbie and a couple of Ken dolls and a dollhouse and even a hot pink convertible for Barbie and her friends to take on their adventures.
Mari can't believe it. "Did somebody bring all these toys?" she says.
Mrs. St. Clair nods and invites her to go into the room. Mari sits on the floor and plays happily with the dolls and the dollhouse and the convertible. When she is done, Mrs. St. Clair finishes drying Mari's hair and lets her stand before a full-length mirror so she can see herself, clean and dressed in her new clothes.
"You look so pretty, Mari," she tells her.
In the kitchen, Mrs. St. Clair takes a freshly baked loaf of bread out of her bread machine. Mari watches, eyes wide and nostrils wider, as her teacher cuts two slices from the loaf and makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her. It is not a fancy lunch, but it does not need to be. Mari sits at the table, eating away and smelling the bread and being reminded of what it is like to have a mother.
That day, as she sits with Mari in the kitchen, Mrs. St. Clair is thinking about Mari's father. She wonders if he will understand why she has taken his daughter home and bathed and fed her.
Mrs. St. Clair and the other teachers would never have dared to do these things with a child from another preschool. Many American parents, they know, would be offended; some people might even consider a lawsuit if their child was taken to a strange home and given a bath. But the teachers' relationship with the Southeast Asian parents is different. These parents trust the school to do what is right. They show that trust every morning when they place their 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds on the school bus, something that most American parents would never feel comfortable doing with preschoolers.
More important, Mari's situation is extraordinary. The teachers know that Mr. Truong is a devoted father. But they also know that he needs help. They hope that he will recognize why they have taken Mari under their wing.
The next day, Mr. Truong writes a letter to Mrs. St. Clair.
He does it in the morning, when Mari and her brothers are at school and the house is quiet enough for him to think. He sits in a small chair used by the children and writes at a little table on which Mari sometimes likes to draw pictures.
There is so much that Mr. Truong wants to say. But as he sits there, staring at the blank paper, he is not sure exactly how to say it. He is trying to express himself with a language that is still strange to him, a language built on an alphabet completely different from the one used in Cambodian writing. So it is not surprising, as he begins to write, that a couple of the words are misspelled, or that his thoughts spill out in broken sentences.
Dear Mrs. Clair.
Thank you for taking my daugther to your house and take a shower for her and gave the new cloth to her. That she tell me one many many thing all of you did. How is she exactly like you _____?
Here Mr. Truong pauses. He is trying to say that he always tells Mari to listen to her teachers and respect them, just as she listened to her mother and respected her. But he cannot find the right words. So he leaves the blank space for the things he cannot express. He signs the letter, hoping Mrs. St. Clair will understand.
Thank you again from Mari's Father
It is a thank-you note, composed in a language that knows no borders, sent from a place most parents could never imagine.