the girl whose mother lives in the sky
As December approaches, the classrooms are busy with preparations for Christmas.

Mrs. Chip wonders if Mari will ask Santa to bring her a new mother. But Mari does not make this impossible request. What she asks is unusual, but highly practical.
The teachers encourage the children to celebrate the traditions of their parents. But they also want them to feel at home with the traditions of America. So they tell them about Santa Claus and teach them how to sing Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They read them How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They help them write letters to Santa, then take them to the main post office in St. Petersburg and show them how to mail the letters to the North Pole.

"You guys have been good, haven't you?" a man at the post office asks them.

"Yessssssss," answer the children.

IT’S A BIG WORLD: On the last day of November 1994, Mari Truong, left, David Thach, center, and Sona Thach (no relation) tour the main branch of the St. Petersburg post office and mail their letters to Santa.

All of them have made lists, telling Santa what they want. The girls ask for dolls, the boys for trucks and spaceships. Mrs. Chip wonders what Mari will tell Santa. Will she ask him to bring her a new mother? But Mari does not make this impossible request. What she asks is unusual, but highly practical.

Now that Soi Lieu is gone, another woman -- a family friend -- is staying with the family, helping Mari's father with the chores and the children. Bed space is limited in a house with five boys and one little girl. So the woman sleeps with Mari.

Now Mari wishes for some privacy. In her list for Santa, she tells him that what she wants, most of all, is a new bed.


Sometimes it is all too much for the teachers. They see their students in pain, they hear the hard things happening in their lives, they want to make things right for them.

Some evenings, Mrs. Chip stands in her kitchen at home, so tired and so worried about the children that she can barely collect her thoughts.

"What's the matter?" her husband will say.

Peggy looks at him, trying to find the words to explain. But she can't.

She and the other teachers are growing more concerned about Junedy, the boy who has such trouble talking. From the moment he arrived at the preschool he has been completely lost.

One morning, the teachers see Junedy out on the playground and realize he is sinking in front of their eyes. He is standing in the sandbox, but he is barely moving. He picks up a toy, looks at it for a second, then stares off in the distance.

Mrs. Chip goes over and feels his forehead. He is hot. She takes him inside the classroom and holds him. She puts her hand on his forehead again.

"He's getting warmer," she tells Mrs. Crow.

They decide to call Junedy's father. They know the father is Cambodian and speaks almost no English, so they ask Mari to help. She speaks Vietnamese and Cambodian. They dial the number and ask Mari to explain to the father that Junedy is sick. Mari speaks to him for a few moments, then tells Junedy his dad wants to talk to him. Mrs. Chip and Mrs. Crow watch to see if Junedy actually speaks to his father. But all they hear coming from his mouth are the birdlike sounds.

Has he communicated with his father? The teachers can't tell. So they put Mari back on the line.

"Is he coming?" Mrs. Crow asks Mari.

Mari repeats the question, her Cambodian clear and very different from the sounds Junedy has made.

THE YOUNG TRANSLATOR: On a morning when Junedy comes down with a fever, the teachers ask Mari to speak in Cambodian on the phone with Junedy’s father, asking him if he can come to the preschool and pick up his ailing son.

"Yes," she tells the teachers.

The incident reminds them of how little they know about Junedy. They have no idea why he does not speak, cannot fathom what is going on inside him.

Mrs. Chip keeps looking for answers. In the classroom, she studies Junedy's face, watches to see if his eyes follow whatever is happening in the room, pays particular attention to his mouth and the shapes it forms when he tries to speak. She is making arrangements to have him screened for lead poisoning. She wants to have his vision and hearing tested.

The missing piece has to be somewhere. They just have to find it.


The last day of class before the holiday break is Friday, Dec. 16. All morning the children sing and color and play. They gather around Mrs. Chip, who sits in her rocking chair and reads them The Night Before Christmas. They practice their "ho-ho-hoing."

A little before 11, Mrs. Chip turns toward the window.

"I hear something," she says.

The children look up and hear a rustling sound outside the classroom door.

Then a knock.

"Who is it?" says Mrs. Crow.

The door opens, and Santa stands before them.

"Merry Christmas!" he booms, and steps into the room. "How are you doing? Have you been good little boys and girls?"

For a moment, Mari and Junedy and the other children are visibly stunned. Then all at once, they jump up and surround the visitor, who reaches into a bag and begins to hand out crayons and candy canes.

"Here we go," he says. "Come on!"

Mari presses in, beaming.

"Oh," says Santa, "you want some candy, don't you?"

He turns to Jack, who is next in line.

"How about you, young fella?"

He gives them their presents. The children sing Jingle Bells for him. He hugs them and bids them goodbye and is barely gone when a big brown United Parcel Service truck pulls up outside and backs slowly toward the classroom door.

CHRISTMAS DELIVERY: Vanessa Petrie brings gifts from UPS employees to Chieu Ho as her sister Quynh looks on outside their home.

The teachers take the children outside to gather around the back of the truck. A man in a UPS uniform opens the rear door. The truck is filled with huge bags. Each bag has a name on it.

The man shows the first bag to Mrs. Petrie, who has come to the school today to help. She looks at the name on the bag.

"Chieu!" she calls out, and one of the little girls steps forward.

"Kevin . . . Tahirih . . . Sarahcie . . . ''

One by one, the children take their bags, which are almost as big as they are and are stuffed with gift-wrapped presents. Several people from UPS, who have driven to the school to be here when the truck arrives, watch and help.

The lists the children made for Santa have been put to good use. Working with the teachers and Mrs. Petrie, the employees at UPS have adopted the preschool for Christmas. They have picked children and volunteered to supply items from the lists. They have even provided toys and games and clothes for some of the other children in the students' families.

"Mari?" says Mrs. Petrie, looking through the throng surrounding the back of the truck.

"MARI!!!!" shout the other children.

She steps forward shyly, obviously overwhelmed. She takes her bag and hurries back into the classroom. A few minutes later, after they have all thanked the people from UPS and wished them Merry Christmas, Mari and the other children are each allowed to unwrap one of their presents.

When Mari opens hers, she finds a stuffed animal. A mouse, which she now clutches tightly as she walks around the classroom. Tonight, it will keep her company in her brand new bed.

It did not come to the school. UPS delivered it to her house last night.

A bed, all her own, complete with Lion King sheets.  

Chapter Three: Part 3
Chapter Four: Part 1
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