the girl whose mother lives in the sky
TRYING IT ON: Hao Nguyen wears a firefighter’s outfit. Knowing that many of the children are frightened of people in uniform, the teachers encourage them to slip into such costumes during playtime.

Time for reading.

Rest period is over, and the towels have been put away, and Mari and the others are sitting cross-legged in a circle before Mrs. St. Clair. Seated in the classroom's old rocking chair, she is holding a copy of Peter Pan and pointing to a picture of Tinker Bell.

"She's very little, isn't she?"

The children say nothing. These are the 3- and 4-year-olds, the ones who are in their first year at the preschool and have another year to go before they leave for kindergarten. Most of them have never heard of Peter Pan. A few barely understand what the teacher is saying.

"Come with us to never-never land," says Pam St. Clair, forging ahead, "and you will never have to grow up."

Now she points to a picture of the Lost Boys, dressed in their animal suits. One of the children spies something that prompts him to raise his hand.

"Two rabbit and one bear and one cat," he says.

Another boy chimes in. "It looks like a rabbit," he says.

Mrs. St. Clair nods. "Let's see what happens."

Carefully, she leads them through the rest of the story. The children sit with their eyes open wide, raptly following along as she tells them about the mermaids and the crocodile and Captain Hook and the pirates and how Peter Pan saves the day.

"You like that story?"

A few children nod. The others stare.

Mrs. Crow, who has been in the back of the room getting ready for the next lesson, steps forward to join them. She tells them that when she was little, her mother and father read her the same story. She loved Peter Pan and used to watch a show of the story when it played on TV. She was surprised, she tells them, when she found out that the actor playing Peter Pan was not a boy at all, but a woman.

The children just keep staring.

Not to be deterred, Mrs. Crow pushes onward. She does not expect them to understand everything. From experience, she knows that if given enough time the children will gradually catch on, picking things up in their own way and at their own speed. So she keeps the information coming.

She gives them a handout that shows the lines to Hey! Diddle, Diddle! The children have heard this rhyme before. But this time, its lines are broken up into four segments, and the segments are out of sequence.

The first segment goes like this:
The dish ran away with the spoon.

The second:
The cow jumped over the moon.

The third:
Hey! Diddle, Diddle!

he cat and the fiddle.

And finally:
The little dog laughed

to see such fun.

Mrs. Crow reads them the different pieces of the puzzle and shows them pictures on the handout that go with the pieces. Then she asks them to help put the pieces in order.

The children look at the pictures. Then they look back up at her.

  About this story

Several years ago, I learned about the Southeast Asian Preschool while taking my own children to their preschool, Lad 'n Lass, which shares the same grounds at a St. Petersburg church. In the mornings, I would hear the Asian children singing in their classrooms or would see them playing outside. I wondered who they were and how they came to America. I wondered, too, about their parents and what their experiences meant for their young sons and daughters.

In the spring of 1994, I set out to find the answers. Along with photographer Cherie Diez, I began hanging out with the students and their teachers. We embarked on the story with the permission of the preschool and United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, which oversees the school. When we found children we wanted to describe by name and in detail, including Mari Truong, we also obtained permission from their parents.

Some of the children at the school go by two names, a formal Asian name and a nickname, which is sometimes American. Since this story centers on the children's experiences at the preschool, we refer to them by the names used there.

I spent nearly 18 months at the school. In the years following, as the boys and girls headed for elementary school, Diez and I kept track of some of them. The Girl Whose Mother Lives in the Sky is an account of what we saw at the preschool and of what happened to those children.

One final note: This story chronicles a period in life -- the time just before children formally enter the world -- rarely covered in a newspaper. This period, when the children are shaped and molded in the most elemental ways, is crucial to their future. But the events described here seem quiet, small, almost episodic. Furthermore, because the children were so young at the time, they now remember almost none of it. They have forgotten the games they used to play, the songs they used to sing.

No matter. This is still their story. The lost story, retrieved from days before memory, of how they took the first steps toward becoming themselves.

-- Thomas French

"What's the first part? The fiddle?" she asks.

No response.

She smiles.

"What's a fiddle?" she says.

No response.

"Yoo-hoo. Anybody awake?"

A few of them smile.

"And where did the cow jump?"

Finally a boy raises his hand.

"Over the moon."

Mrs. Crow nods. She always watches for signs. She pays attention to their body language, studies the set of their jaws and the arc of their brows and peers into their eyes so she'll know when the lights inside their brains are switched on.

When Mrs. Crow was a teenager in the 1960s, she would watch the TV reports from Vietnam and see the footage of the war and the bombings and the frightened children. It seemed almost unreal, hard to believe, so far away. Now, all these years later, it's not far away at all. Now, the past has found her, here in this classroom.

Though Mrs. Crow's students were not alive during the war, the events live inside them. Some of the children, for instance, have facial features that are both Asian and American. They are the grandchildren of U.S. soldiers, offspring of the offspring of liaisons between soldiers and Vietnamese women.

Many of the children have been raised with an almost visceral fear of government. Their parents suffered at the hands of soldiers, and so now the children are terrified of anyone in uniform. Not just police officers, but postal workers, firefighters and paramedics.

One year, there was a girl at the preschool who had learned, somehow, to cry without making a sound. Mrs. Crow and the other teachers did not know what to think. Was this a survival skill passed on by her parents? Did her mother learn it in a re-education camp or in the jungle, hiding from pursuers?

In some ways, the details of each family's history do not matter. Whatever has happened to these children's parents, the task before the teachers remains the same. The children are here, and they must be taught.

This year the challenge has been particularly difficult. It's not just that the children must learn to speak English; some of them, when they arrived at the school, did not know how to use an indoor toilet. Halfway through the spring semester, a great deal of progress has been made. Still, the teachers worry that some of the students will not be ready for what lies ahead in kindergarten.

They worry about the girl with the metal teeth. Her parents are from Cambodia, but she was born in California. Her diet was so poor that her teeth began to deteriorate, and a dentist covered many of the teeth with silver. This girl is a sweet-tempered child, affectionate and open and eager to please. But the metal teeth have left her with a strange, disconcerting appearance. She has other problems, too. The teachers are not sure, but they suspect she is suffering from lead poisoning or fetal alcohol syndrome or both. She has trouble paying attention for more than a few minutes. She seems to understand almost no English and is often reduced to parroting what the teachers say. Her clothes and skin are dirty; her hair is frequently infested with lice. The other children, sensing that she is different, barely look at her.

The teachers worry about the boy who does not speak. His mother is Laotian, his father Vietnamese. Months have gone by, and he has barely uttered a word. When the other boys and girls stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of the school day, he politely stands with his hand on his heart but says nothing. When they sit in a circle singing songs, he does not join them. Every morning, he sits before them, and yet he remains out of reach.

More than anyone else, the teachers worry about Mari Truong.


Out on the playground again, she walks up to one of the teachers on the bench. Her face is tight. She is on the verge of exploding with tears.

"I hurt my hand."

The teacher -- her real name is Peggy Chlapowski, but the kids call her Mrs. Chip -- looks into Mari's eyes.

"You did? Well, then you can sit on my lap. Can I give it a kiss?"

Mari Truong sits on Mrs. St. Clair’s lap, smiling as Mrs. Crow reaches over to tickle her. As her mother struggles with leukemia, Mari’s mood goes up and down. Some days, she comes to school with tears in her eyes; other times she is ready to laugh and play.

Mari nods and accepts the attention. A few minutes later, she jumps off Mrs. Chip's lap and rejoins her friends on the swings. But she could be back any second, ready to cry again.

Her parents are from Vietnam, but they lived in a southwestern province where many of the people originally came from Cambodia, just across the border. Though they speak Vietnamese, their first language is Cambodian. The parents grew up in the same village and were married very young. Mari's father, Linh Truong, was a farmer who worked in the rice paddies. But as the years passed, he grew weary of trying to raise his family under the Communists. So he and his wife, Soi Lieu, gathered their five sons -- Mari was not yet born -- and fled to Thailand.

They walked most of the way, hundreds of miles across the breadth of Cambodia until finally they reached a refugee camp on the Thailand-Cambodia border. They stayed in refugee camps for two years; Mari was born in one of the camps in March 1990. Early the following year, the Truongs were granted permission to come to the United States.

Three years later, the family is renting a home in St. Petersburg, eking out a living. Mr. Truong works in restaurants, washing dishes and helping with the cooking. Soi Lieu is at home, fighting a difficult battle with leukemia.

For months now, the illness has rippled through the family. Soi Lieu is in and out of the hospital. When she is at home, she is often confined to bed. Because the family has little money, her care is provided through Medicaid. Mr. Truong is struggling to raise Mari and her five older brothers. The children are beside themselves. One of the boys, in what appears to be a sympathetic response to his mother's suffering, has lost most of his hair.

The teachers do not know much about Mari's mother. Soi Lieu has been strong enough to visit the school only a couple of times. Like many of the Asian parents who come to the preschool, she stayed at the classroom door and did not venture inside. She said very little. And it was obvious that it was draining for her to be there, even for a few minutes. She was extremely thin, weak, washed out; although still in her 30s, she appeared to be fading before their eyes.

That was months ago. Now, the teachers are told that Soi Lieu's condition has worsened. And as she has deteriorated, so has Mari. She has become distracted and moody; if even the smallest thing goes wrong, she breaks down. As the weeks go by, she seems to be disappearing inside herself.

One day, exhaustion overtakes her.

It happens on the bus ride home. Early every morning, a school bus -- provided by contract with the Pinellas County school system -- travels around St. Petersburg, picking up Mari and other children at stops near their homes and then taking them to the preschool. At the end of the school day, the bus takes them home. But on this day, Mari does not get off at her stop. The bus driver goes through her route, dropping off the children. When the driver is finished, she takes one more look around and makes a startling discovery.

In her seat, out of sight, is Mari. Worn out beyond belief, she has curled up and fallen fast asleep.

Chapter One: Part 1 Chapter One: Part 3
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