I just finished reading the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s the story of a Hmong girl with epilepsy. In Hmong culture, epilepsy is a gift to the soul. So the parents wouldn’t give her medicine. The book is about the cultural struggle between the parents and the American medical community. The thing that got me was that it won lots of national literary awards, but also, it’s required reading at many medical schools. I thought I’d learn a lot. And I did.

Here is an excerpt from the book. It’s an essay the epileptic girl’s sister wrote for her eighth-grade language arts class about escaping Laos after the Vietnam war:

On our way to Thailand was something my parent will never forget. It was one of the scariest time of my life, and maybe my parents. We had to walked by feet. Some of family, however, leave their kids behind, kill or beat them. For example, one of the relative has tried to kill one of his kid, but luckily he didn’t died. And manage to come along with the group. Today, he’s in America carrying a scar on his forehead. 

My parents had to carried me and two of my younger sisters, True and Yer. My mom could only carried me, and my dad could only my sister, True with many other things which they have to carry such as, rices (food), clothing, and blankets for overnight. My parents pay one of the relative to carry Yer. One of my sister who died in Thailand was so tire of walking saying that she can’t go on any longer. But she dragged along and made it to Thailand. 

There was gun shot going on and soldier were close to every where. If there was a gun shot, we were to look for a place to hide. On our trip to Thailand, there were many gun shots and instead of looking for a place to hide, my parents would dragged our hands or put us on their back and run for their lifes. When it gets too heavy, my parents would tossed some of their stuff away. Some of the things they had throw awy are valuable to them, but our lives were more important to them than the stuffs. 

Here’s what her teacher wrote at the end of the essay. “You have an exciting life! Please watch verbs in the past tense.”

I had to reread everything. I couldn’t believe it.

There’s an article in Mother Jones about how public school used to do a good job of teaching immigrant kids how to assimilate. But with the emphasis on tests, public schools no long help immigrant kids become American. Lisa Nielsen, education philosopher who works for the New York City public schools tells me, “the emphasis on test taking sets immigrant kids up for failure.”

A school system that fails immigrant kids fails us all, though, because the emphasis on test taking overshadows the old emphasis on community integration, which intrinsically includes ethics. What this essay really drove home to me is how little we know about the people we leave our kids with. We know they are probably underachieversLH, we know they probably have their hands tied by test standards, but we don’t know their morals. And, what, really, do kids learn while they are school age? Kids learn how to frame their own world and their own experience.

While I am definitely in favor of exposing kids to lots of different perspectives, I want to be the person showing my kids how to frame their experience.

Robert Coles, author of the The Moral Intelligence of Children, writes about how book knowledge does not teach morals. Kids watching what adults do teaches morals. School kids are watching a single teacher eight hours a day. This person the parents did not choose. This person the parents do not know much about.

If morality is the overriding principle that people learn as children, and children learn morality by watching adults, then time spent with the adult is the essential learning process. It doesn’t require workbooks, or expensive activities, or a big house. It requires only time. It requires that kids be with the parents and not sent away to a school that emphasizes test scores and book learning.