Spring is tumbling toward summer. Out on the playground, the children do as children have always done. They run and chase each other under the big oak tree that rises above the swings. They play tag, make castles, study the black ants at the edge of the sandbox and the squirrels that run along the top of the playground fence and the hordes of forest tent caterpillars that drop like paratroopers from the oak tree's branches, dangling before them on invisible strings of silk.
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. And it was obvious that it was draining for her to be there, even for a few minutes.
Through it all, Mrs. Crow, Mrs. Chip and Mrs. St. Clair sit on the bench beside the tree, watching and listening. Day after day, they smile as a handful of girls -- beautiful girls, with angelic faces -- approach them, offering them a taste of a make-believe pie they have just finished preparing in the sandbox. The game is an old one, and the adults know it well. Playing along, they pretend to take a bite of the pie.
"Teacher, it poison!" the girls cry. "You eat poison!"
The women erupt in mock horror, and the girls scurry away, giggling at their ability to keep fooling the adults.
From their seats on the bench, the teachers take everything in. They observe who is sharing and who is not, who is smiling and who is on the verge of tears, which girl is surrounded by friends and which is kept on the outside of the circle, which boy truly does not understand when someone calls out to him in English and which is merely pretending not to understand.
They pay attention to it all because they know that the most important things in the world are often expressed in the most fleeting moments. They wait because they know that, given enough time, children will always reveal who they are.
All three of the preschool's teachers, it can safely be said, know a thing or two about kids. They are all mothers, with children of their own -- Mrs. St. Clair has one, Mrs. Crow has three, Mrs. Chip has four -- and together they have spent years working with young students at this preschool and others.
Clearly, Mrs. Crow does not fit the stereotype of a preschool teacher. In a profession built on sing-alongs, she admits she cannot carry a tune.
Mrs. Crow, who has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in education, is probably the most experienced of the teachers. Before she came here, she taught at an elementary school in Lakeland; some years ago, she taught at Lad 'n Lass, a mainstream preschool that is also located on the grounds of Lakewood United Methodist, next door to the Southeast Asian Preschool. And when the woman from the Methodist ministries offered Mrs. Crow the job teaching the Southeast Asian kids, she jumped at the chance to work in the classroom again and take on a whole new challenge.
She is 44, with dark brown eyes, shoulder-length brown hair and an air of perpetual bemusement, as though someone has just told her something funny and she is trying not to laugh. Raised in Florida and South Carolina, she speaks with a slight Southern accent, barely noticeable except when she slows down, which is rare. Trying to keep up with her kids, her husband, her house and the demands of the preschool, she lives in a state of permanent disarray.
THE UN-BARBIE: Barbara Crow, the preschools director, has taught there since it opened in 1988. Theyre not pets, she says of her young students. Theyre real people with real problems.
"I always want to be organized," she says. "I mean to be. It just doesn't happen."
She routinely apologizes for running 10 minutes late. She vows, again and again, to clear off the stacks of paper piled on top of her dining room table. But deep down, she accepts -- even secretly enjoys -- the ragged edges of her days. At home on her refrigerator, she keeps a sign. It says: "A clean house is a sign of a misspent life."
For the record, she goes by Barbara -- not Barb, not Babs and definitely not Barbie. As a girl, she refused to own or play with Barbie dolls; she wanted nothing to do with them. Why, you might ask.
"Because they were named Barbie," she'll say, staring at you as though you have the IQ of a rock. "Duh."
Clearly, Mrs. Crow does not fit the stereotype of a preschool teacher. She is sharp and sassy, not soft and fuzzy. In a profession built on sing-alongs, she admits she cannot carry a tune.
This not a problem, though, because neither can her students. And when they come into her classroom, she is ready to sing with them, ready to drop onto the carpet and play with them, ready to do whatever she can to help them on their way.
There's this poem that Mrs. Crow and the other teachers keep at the school. They don't know who wrote it, but to them it captures the heart of why they do this.
We pray for children
who spend their allowances before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed, and never rinse out the tub . . .
And we pray for those whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren't spoiled by anyone,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move but have no being.
The thing is, people tend to think of kids, especially preschool kids, as adorable little creatures without a care in the world. They see them as cute, and only cute. But the teachers at the preschool know that's not true, particularly with the Southeast Asian kids.
"They're not pets," says Mrs. Crow. "They're real people with real problems."
The job of the teachers is not to solve the children's problems. They can't possibly do that, and even if they could, what good would that do? Because once the children leave this school, they will face new challenges, new barriers.
No, the job of the teachers at the preschool is to help the students learn the skills and gain the strength and resilience to deal with their problems themselves. Their job is to get them ready for the world that waits beyond the playground.
The responsibility is overwhelming. The teachers talk about their students at home, go on and on about them with their friends, dream about them at night.
Mrs. Crow can't get Mari out of her mind. Over and over, she thinks about what will happen if Mari's mother dies. Mrs. Crow knows what it is like to lose someone at an early age. When she was 2 years old, Barbara and her sister were out walking one day with their grandmother. Her sister -- her name was Anne, she was 5 -- let go of their grandmother's hand and dashed into the road and was run down by a car.
Being so young at the time, Barbara did not understand what had happened. She was told that Anne was gone but could not comprehend what that meant. After the funeral, when her parents brought her back home, she went looking through their house, going room to room, searching for her sister.
Now Mari faces an even more terrible loss. She is just a 4-year-old girl. She needs her mother; she depends on her mother.
Mrs. Crow wonders what they will do at the school if Soi Lieu does not recover. How will they prepare Mari for that?
The teachers do what they can. They work with the children on their numbers and alphabet. They read them stories about mice and cookies.
Only a couple of months are left in the school year, and still they do not know what will happen to the girl with the metal teeth. She is 5 and is supposed to head for kindergarten in the fall. But her teachers wonder if she'll be able to handle it. On an alarming number of days, she is absent; when she does show up, she is off in a world of her own. As the other children talk, she sits with her face in her hands.
"She's gone," says Mrs. Chip, shaking her head.
The boy who does not speak has begun to smile, which is encouraging. He pays close attention in class and clearly has picked up enough English to understand most of what's going on. But when the teachers ask him a question, he raises his eyebrows up and down, sucks on his shirt, stares at the ground. One morning not long ago, when he was playing with Legos inside the classroom, Mrs. St. Clair asked him what he was making.
"He burst into tears," she says.
Then there is Mari. Her mood fluctuates each day, depending on how her mother is doing. The doctors are trying to arrange a bone marrow transplant, but so far they have not found a compatible donor. They would like to attempt the procedure with one of Soi Lieu's brothers, but the brothers are still in Vietnam, and as yet the government there has not issued them a visa to come to the United States.
Faced with all of this turmoil and uncertainty, Mari hangs on as best she can. She often climbs into one of the teachers' laps, shutting her eyes and pulling herself close to them.
"Are you awake, or are you asleep?" Mrs. Crow gently asks one day as Mari leans against her. "Do you feel bad?"
"Does your tummy hurt?"
She shakes her head.
"You just feel bad?"
Mari glances over at one of the other girls. "Loan hit me," she says. "She hit me in the head."
"She didn't mean to hit you," says Mrs. Crow, who saw the incident in question and knows it was an unintended bump. "It was an accident."
She looks down at Mari.
"Do you want me to have Loan tell you sorry?"
Mari shakes her head and keeps holding on to her teacher.
One Monday, the children come to class buzzing with news. It's Mari, they say. She has been in a wedding. She is married.
The teachers investigate. The language barriers and the cultural gaps make it difficult to piece it all together, but when they press the children for information, they discover that in fact Mari and a boy at the preschool did stand together in some sort of ceremony over the weekend. The boy wore a suit. Mari wore a white formal dress and a veil.
Out on the playground, Mrs. St. Clair finds the boy and asks him what happened. She comes back shaking her head.
TIME TO PRAY: Though the teachers are respectful of the cultural and religious heritage of their students families, they are also mindful of the fact that the school is run by a Methodist organization and is on the grounds of a Methodist church. So every morning, they lead the children in a blessing before a snack.
"He said he married Mari," she says. "Mari will be his wife."
In the days that follow, as more details find their way to the school, the teachers discover that the truth is a bit more complicated.
There was a wedding over the previous weekend, but it was not between the children. The person who got married was actually the boy's mother, a close friend of Mari's mother. Mari served as a flower girl; the boy was the ring bearer.
Still, there is something to the rumors.
Mari's mother, it turns out, has hopes for this boy and her daughter. Soi Lieu comes from a country where arranged marriages are common. She likes this boy and respects his family. And although nothing formal has been declared or arranged, she has made it clear that she would be pleased if one day her daughter and the other woman's son united the two families through marriage.
When Mari and the boy stood together at the wedding, dressed like a young bride and groom, they symbolized Soi Lieu's hopes.
Mrs. Crow understands what is happening.
It's the leukemia, she says. Mari's mother knows she will not be here to see her daughter become a woman. So she is squaring things away, making plans, attending as best she can to the details of a future she will not live to witness.
The teachers sit on the bench under the tree, thinking through the implications.
Not far away, Mari and the boy from the wedding play with their friends, running across the playground toward summer and beyond.