Father Joseph Maier
slum kids in her kindergarten class call her Miss Teacher Froggy – Kru Kee-it
and every new school year she tries to get them to call her by her title and
given name – three beautiful syllables in Thai, but her name sticks to the
roof of your mouth and the kids forget. So
Miss Teacher Froggy it is. Kru Kee-it. Kru
is Thai for teacher and Kee-it is the word for the tiny frog that makes such a
big noise. But from the time she was a little kid herself, her mom called
her Froggy, and now the kids do the same.
a funny name to call a hero. And she is that. Miss Teacher Froggy
is one of our true heroes of the Klong Toey slum. She grew up in the
Slaughterhouse part of the slum, near where they used to butcher the cattle and
Water buffalo, alongside the stinky Prakanong Canal. And she was so
cross-eyed, she’d get a kink in her neck trying to look at something, or
even trying to read. She had a hard time at
She was their only child, but her parents didn’t have money for an eye Operation. Then when she was eight---the minimum age for this surgery---a generous doctor uptown on Ratachtaewee Road did it for free. Even paid for her mom’s bus fare from the Slaughterhouse and back, plus meals so mom could be with daughter Froggy for the two days she had to keep a patch over her eye.
operation worked. Today, she sees straight on, 20 – 20 vision.
She doesn’t even need glasses. No one remembers any more that she
used to be Cross-eyed Froggy. And now she is a hero.
I don’t mean she’s the girl Rambo type. She’s pretty and svelte Her eyes dance and to her kids she’s Wendy and Tinker Bell, plus Kanga and Pooh and Tigger, with Hermione from Harry Potter blended in. She’s never owned Designer jeans and mom bought her her first pair of shoes the day she went off crying, as we all did, to her first day of school. In other words, she’s one of the guys. From the neighborhood.
Oh, but she was a girl Rambo once, a year ago this month, when the Slaughterhouse had its Meningococal meningitis scare. Heavy-duty industrial type words for a nasty disease that attacks the brain and the spinal cord. And it can kill you. Three kids in the slum got sick, and lots of Bleeding sores. Five-year-old kids all bandaged up looking like war causalities. The youngest, in Miss Teacher Froggy’s class, was in the hospital for more than a month. Two months later his mom was still changing his bandages daily.
It can start with rat urine in the water, in the garbage. Two five-year-olds in hospital came from houses at different ends of the Slaughterhouse, so we knew it wasn’t isolated in one area. The Public Health Department folks took 40 sputum samples and seven more kids tested positive, but had no symptoms. The Health Officials visited our kindergarten and they walked the length of the slum wearing masks and white hospital coats. Not quite as scary as the Ebola movies, but almost.
The virus was in the stagnant water. Maybe also in some of the kids’ houses. Many of the toilet and bathing areas had no light, were dark and dank. Miss Teacher Froggy led the brigade. She went from house to house telling everyone: neighbors, friends, the people she’d known since she was a child. She was everywhere, organizing the entire neighborhood. Up to her knees, pitching garbage out of the most Hazardous waste piles. Six huge, smelly truckloads in two days.
Everyone helped, more than 400 of us in all. We all ate the antidote medicine and no one else got sick. We put two hundred clear plastic panels in one hundred houses, thus drying out a hundred bathrooms. The Slum was a cleaner place. The health folks said they’d never seen a Community pull together like that.
Finally, the scare died down. The children who were ill got better. When the school re-opened Miss Teacher Froggy returned to her classroom in the wooden shack. Now she was just an everyday sort of hero. Maybe the most important type. Always there when kids are frightened. Some of them run to her house at night when they wake up---alone, afraid, crying---when their moms are at work.
They stand outside her door and cry, and she lets them in to sleep with her old teddy bear till their moms come home at dawn. If they’re really scared, as they often are, she tucks a blanket around them, snuggly and warm, and holds them until they return to sleep.
Come school time, she’s strict. There is order in her class. Knuckles get rapped. To graduate from Miss Teacher Froggy’s second year kindergarten class is to win a badge of honor. She wants the kids to stay in school, and some do, so that maybe they’ll be able to avoid doing the stuff their moms do, to pay for food and shelter and school uniforms.
These kids are easy marks, you see. More vulnerable than you and me. They’re street wise and tough in some ways, but also so starved for affection and love, they’ll believe just about anyone who says something nice to them.
In this, they’re really innocent and totally open to predators, even when they grow up, even when they’re slum heroes. Hit them and they bruise, cut them and they bleed, and it’s easy to break their hearts. It happened to Miss Teacher Froggy.
She met a young man from uptown with a sweet mouth and as soon as she got pregnant, you know who was never heard from again. During her pregnancy, she taught during the week and on weekends washed squid for 145 Baht a day, but the wash water ate away the skin on her hands. So she switched to washing pig guts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights with the women of the Slaughterhouse as the men butchered the pork. This paid 200 Baht a night.
Now she has a daughter, the glory of her life. And she still comes to the kindergarten every day, to teach some of the children of her lifelong friends. There’s continuity in the slums, you see. It isn’t just transients passing through. And Miss Teacher Froggy is a slum kid, now 24 years old, who stayed in the slum and became a teacher and at the start of every session, she still tries to get her students to call her by her title and her given name, and it never works. Miss Teacher Froggy – Kru Kee-it is it. So that is a kind of continuity, too. And the kids run up in the Slum and give her a hug and shout out “Hello Miss Teacher Froggy.” If you were five, wouldn’t you?