Even in a slum, a mother with nothing can still hear her daughter's desperate cry for help and come to the rescue.
By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
There was lots of screaming and shouting in the slaughterhouse neighbourhood. Miss Ploy was throwing a loud tantrum against her mum.
Just a quick glance at Miss Ploy walking by in the slum and you would know, this is a special kid.
She’s 14 years old, too skinny and obviously under-fed, with Raggedy Ann hair. She’s the proud owner of a grand total of one school uniform with no shoes. But that’s not the issue.
Miss Ploy (that’s her nickname and it means precious jewel) has a current grade average of 3.29, and she says it is embarrassingly low. Mum tells her she should be proud, but she’s not. She was recently top in her high school class, but she missed some homework assignments because after school she was on the street, hunting for junk to sell to give money to her crippled dad for booze. Plus she heard rumours recently: garbage talk from dad about selling her for a case of whiskey.
She had an escape plan worked out: to flee from the shack at midnight when everyone, including her dad and her male cousin, were asleep. That was the plan, simply to run, just like her mum had to run 12 years ago. She couldn’t prepare anything, lest they suspect.
Plus the cousin, who liked drugs, had taken a shine to Miss Ploy. In fact, he was telling everyone that he “owned” her, which was totally not true. Not yet, at least. Therein was the issue: it was not safe with her crippled, wheelchair-bound, booze-loving, garbage-talking dad who wanted to trade her for a case of whiskey and a cousin who wanted to ruin her.
She loved school and never missed a day, even when she was half-sick or hadn’t had much to eat. She was not like her mum, who never had any schooling, except for that first year of slum kindergarten in the slaughterhouse neighbourhood. Her dad couldn’t have cared two hoots about school.
Miss Ploy didn’t really trust her mum. How could she, after abandoning her when she was two? Back then, mum didn’t have a choice. It was run or be beaten daily. Plus, dad said he didn’t want her around any more — instead, he wanted his new woman. And his new woman didn’t want two-year-old baby Ploy around. The new woman eventually threw dad out, of course, after dad became disabled after an accident, but that came later and in the meantime, Miss Ploy was stuck.
But what could mum do to make money? She could write her name and read city bus numbers; not much more. So she became a street lady, wandering for over a year, sleeping in bus stops, under bridges and construction site camps and washing herself when she could sneak into restrooms in petrol stations.
She collected bottles, paper, anything of value and begged the monks at the temple for food and the discarded extra clothes of the dead before cremations. Nothing was taboo. When you’re hungry, taboos don’t count. Only survival.
Then she found her first job, without pay, at a construction site, just to learn the ropes. At least the job came with food. Later, as she learned her way around the job site, they would always give her a few coins. And so went her life. Days to weeks to months to years, moving from construction site to construction site all around Bangkok.
More recently mum was on a construction site, not far from the slaughterhouse, when she wandered into her old kindergarten to see if the one-and-only teacher she ever had was still there. It had been years and she didn’t think her old teacher would remember her.
The teacher was a bit bent over, wearing glasses, hair turned grey, but still teaching kindergarten kids. She looked mum up and down: “What has happened to you, my favourite girl? Oh, never mind. Now just sit here and I will get you a bowl of rice soup. Then we will clean you up.
“I’m old now and can’t do much, but it looks like you don’t have a home. I’ve got a mosquito net we don’t use and you can sleep here in the school till we get you settled. You don’t have to work construction. Just stay here.
“I will have my neighbour, a retired policeman, talk to someone here in the slaughterhouse and get you work, cleaning pig pens in exchange for food. They always need someone to clean the pig pens from midnight to dawn after the nightly butchering is finished. Work for food and you can stay here with me, your old teacher.”
Mum quickly moved up the economic and social ladder — from cleaning the pig pens to washing the pig entrails. And more recently, back to her old slaughterhouse kindergarten, where she’s now the assistant cook. Every morning, she can’t stop crying — she’s alive, she’s “home” — and maybe just maybe her only daughter will forgive her. The old teacher holds her and rocks her back and forth to sooth her, just like she did so many years ago.
Then mum heard the slum talk about her daughter and the case of whisky. Dad never could pay for his drinks and with the booze debts came the talk: “I’ll trade her any time for a case of whisky. She’s no beauty, but, of boy, she’s really smart in school. And bossy.”
He said it often enough and someone put a case of whisky in the basket in the back of his wheelchair. A case of whisky for a smart 14-year-old, placed there by the bad guys.
You see, the bad guys, in their chosen trade, needed two types of girls. First, those they used and abused physically and, second, those they taught to be teenage pimps who could control the first. This second group had to be smart and tough and they had to be taught to be cruel.
When mum heard the talk she panicked, but old teacher had a plan: That evening, Miss Ploy had just got home from school and was ready to change from her school uniform to her slum clothes and take her daily walk through the neighbourhood, searching for junk to sell.
Mum, the old teacher and the retired policeman who lived nearby met Miss Ploy at the door and marched her out, taking only her school backpack. Nothing else. Not even her toothbrush. Garbage-talking, wheelchair dad began to rant, but the old policeman waved his cane. Dad knew him from many previous run-ins, and shut up. The plan was working.
Miss Ploy now lived with mum in a room close by her old teacher’s shack. The retired policeman lived with his wife two doors away. After school, schoolmates walked Miss Ploy home. This would be her routine until the bad guys felt that kidnapping her was too risky.
The next step was to deal with the kidnappers. The teacher asked around and learned that the potential kidnappers were former students. The teacher scolded them: Shame. Shame on you. And of course, who among us would ever dare go against our first-year slum kindergarten teacher? Certainly not in the slaughterhouse?
But back to Miss Ploy’s tantrum. A stray cat had come to live with mum. Miss Ploy didn’t like cats, but mum said: “We are all strays.”
Miss Ploy replied: “I’m 14 and an adult. How dare you treat me this way? You’re the worst mum on the planet.”
The old teacher intervened: “Don’t talk like that to your mother, or you will stay with me. And I have three cats!”
Today? The cousin who wanted to ruin Miss Ploy was killed in a drug fight and dad got himself registered on the government dole, which is 800 baht per month for disabled folks, and there’s not much left over for booze. So he’s on these pills that go for 10 baht apiece and “make you stupid” for hours.
Miss Ploy lives with her mum, who is still assistant cook at our slaughterhouse kindergarten. She excels in school and is safe, but seldom goes anywhere alone, and never at night.
Sometimes a story’s ending is so ordinary, even Pollyannaish, no matter how complex and awful it may be, when it’s over you have to stop wringing your hands and just laugh.
This tug-of-war for a child’s soul ended in just such a way. Mum heard her daughter’s cry for help and did what mums are supposed to do: protect their children. And listen to what the teacher says, new or old.