the girl whose mother lives in the sky
CHAPTER ONE NEVER-NEVER LAND
STORY BY THOMAS FRENCH • PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHERIE DIEZ • OF THE TIMES STAFF
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ON THE BUS: Children from the preschool gaze through the windows of a Pinellas County school bus that takes the students -- some as young as 3 years old -- to and from the preschool.

Quietly, she weaves among the other children. She stands at the edge of the playground and waits her turn at the swings. She runs with the other girls, all of them holding hands and laughing, their black hair blowing in the wind, their bodies forming a line that ripples and curves. When it is time to go inside and rest, she lies on her towel and stares out the classroom window, gazing at the ocean of blue sky where her mother will soon be going to live.

Mari Truong is in her first year at preschool. Her teachers keep close tabs on her and her situation at home. They worry in the way of all mothers, and they watch in the way of all teachers, and they make sure she knows she is not alone. In the middle of class, one of them pulls her onto her lap and brushes her hand across the child's cheek.

"You have to stay little," the teacher tells her. "Or else I'll miss you, and I'll cry."

Mari smiles, returns the hug, then slips away. She is only 4 and still shines with the radiance of the very young. Yet there is something elusive about her, something fierce that refuses to be pinned down, captured, categorized. Already she looks at the world with the eyes of someone who will never surrender.

They are astonishing, Mari's eyes. Impossibly big and round, sharp and piercing, so dark brown they almost blossom into black. Despite her age, they seem to be charged with decades of emotion and experience. What have her eyes seen that Mari does not yet have words to explain? Do they carry memories, passed along in stories, of what her parents witnessed on the other side of the globe? Do they open at night, in her bed, and replay scenes from the refugee camp in Thailand where she was born? Does she see visions of her mother, like she used to be, before the doctors and the hospital and the wasting away?

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BASIC LESSONS: After witnessing a scuffle over a toy, Mrs. Chip puts Tung Dang on the phone with a parent who can explain to the child, in Vietnamese, the importance of sharing.

Or maybe there is room inside Mari for only the here and now. Maybe it is simpler, for the moment, to focus on images from this classroom and the playground outside, where the other children are calling.

Several of the girls are in the sandbox, making pies and talking together in Vietnamese. One of the teachers, seated on a bench, hears them and turns.

"You guys speak English," she says. "Okay?"

Mari, standing a few feet away, does not need to be reminded. She watches, listens, absorbs everything. Then suddenly she is in motion.

She rides the seesaw. She hangs from the monkey bars. She climbs on the swings and arches her back and kicks her feet toward the sun.

***

Theoretically, they are resting.

Midway through another morning, the lights are off, and the room is dark, except for the glow of the outside world seeping through the window. Against one wall, an air-conditioning unit hums and rattles. Against another, a tape deck softly plays Pop Goes the Weasel.

The floor is alive with squirming bodies.

"Lie down," Mrs. Crow says. "We have a bunch of wiggle worms."

She gives them her best teacher look, a look she has perfected after years of practice, and holds it a second or two, for maximum effect.

"David, lie down."

Mrs. Crow stands near the window, sipping her iced tea as always, and fights the urge to smile. Normally she has nothing against smiling; she is all for it. But if the children see her laughing right now and not taking rest time seriously, then they will laugh, too, and then some of them will think they can get up and go wild.

And that just won't do.

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SQUIRMING BODIES: Children sprawl across the classroom carpet, going through the motions of resting after coming in from the playground.

Barbara Crow, a veteran teacher who has seen her share of disastrous days, does not like to tempt fate. But if pressed, she would have to admit that this particular morning -- a quiet Wednesday in April 1994 -- is going well. There have been no outbursts, no accidents, no unfortunate incidents involving tears or violence or bodily functions.

The children have already been out to the playground and clasped their hands together for the blessing and eaten their snack and then run around. They have returned to the classrooms and taken turns in the bathroom. Now they are lying on the carpet, stretched out on their towels, trying to hold still for a few minutes.

Mari (pronounced Mary) is staring into space, thinking whatever she thinks. So is Daodet, another girl who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand; and Jack, an eternally smiling boy whose older brother is a Buddhist monk; and Loan, a tiny girl who sometimes pretends to know no English.


For the teachers, the challenge is daunting. Somehow, even though they do not speak any of the children's native languages, they are expected to navigate the vast gulf between themselves and their students.
They are all familiar faces here at the Southeast Asian Preschool, a two-classroom program housed on the grounds of Lakewood United Methodist Church in the southernmost section of St. Petersburg. The school is funded and operated by United Methodist Cooperative Ministries with the help of a grant from Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board; Lakewood United Methodist Church donates the classroom space.

The preschool has a special mission. It is designed solely for children whose families have immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. Some of the children were born in their parents' home countries. Others were born in refugee camps in the Philippines or Thailand, where their parents fled after escaping across borders or over the sea. Many, however, were born at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg after their families arrived in America.

All of the school's 26 students share one thing in common: They are being raised in homes that, for all intents and purposes, are still Southeast Asian. They live in houses and on streets where English rarely is spoken and where the old customs and ways of life are still in place. Their parents are protective of their heritage and want their children to speak their native language. But the parents also know that their sons and daughters are growing up in a new country.

So they send the children to the preschool, where Mrs. Crow and two other teachers prepare the children for kindergarten and the rest of their lives. They immerse them in English, show them how to thrive in a classroom, acclimate them to the essentials of American culture.

"Our main thing," says Mrs. Crow, the school's director, "is socialization and language."

The school has been open since the fall of 1988. For the teachers, the challenge is daunting. Somehow, even though they do not speak any of the children's native languages, they are expected to navigate the vast gulf between themselves and their students. Often they start from scratch, working with kids who know no English. This year, they are dealing with one child, a 4-year-old boy, who is reluctant to speak in any language.

There's more. Since many of the Southeast Asian families left everything behind when they came to the United States, some of the children live in homes that are appallingly poor -- homes so destitute they make many welfare families look prosperous. Some of these students are suffering from years of malnutrition. Despite their young age, a number already have rotting teeth. One girl at the school has a mouth that shines with metal teeth.

For the most part, these children do not fit the stereotype of overachieving Asian-American students. Many of their parents were poor before they came to America and had little money or time for school. Some are illiterate and work menial jobs, struggling to get by. Most of the families at the school have an income of less than $10,000 a year; a few make as little as $500 a month. Yet the majority of these parents are too proud to apply for welfare or food stamps.

"Maybe one-quarter of them apply for government assistance," says Mrs. Crow. "Most don't want it."

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A HELPING HAND: Mrs. Chip helps Jack Chanthavong solve the mysteries of tying a shoe.
Like so many poor children, the sons and daughters from some of these families come to school with a long list of disadvantages. But these children carry with them the extra burden of a nightmarish history. They were born long after the Vietnam War ended and the Communists took over and the Khmer Rouge swept to power in Cambodia and exterminated hundreds of thousands of people. They do not remember the bombings or the soldiers or the blank eyes of corpses. But their parents do, and inevitably those memories find their way to the preschool.

Mrs. Crow and the other teachers have talked with parents who witnessed the murder of their entire families, parents who survived attacks from pirates in the waters off Vietnam, parents who carried the bodies of the dead in Cambodia.

One year, a father of two girls at the preschool came to talk with the teachers. The father, a soft-spoken, almost painfully shy man who doted on his daughters, apologized because he was wearing flip-flops instead of shoes. He did not mean to be disrespectful with his informality, he said, explaining almost offhandedly that before he escaped from Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had nailed spikes through his feet. All these years later, his feet were still damaged; sometimes, they swelled.

He was not wearing shoes that day, he said, because his feet did not fit inside them.

  
Chapter One: Part 2
Introduction
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