“The Spark” is compulsive reading, and not simply because of Jake’s “savant almost obliterated by the system” story. In the tradition of those domestic-adventure memoirs where the mother (almost always the mother) of a challenged child bucks the system and triumphs, Barnett not only fights heroically on Jake’s behalf, she also beats down every other obstacle that life hurls at her and her family. Even for this hyperbolic genre, those obstacles are extraordinarily severe. The Barnetts’ second child, Wesley, is diagnosed with a reflex disorder soon after he’s born. It causes him to have seizures, up to nine a day, and to choke on simple liquids.
During her third pregnancy — with another son, Ethan — Barnett goes into full-blown organ failure; she subsequently has a stroke, at age 30, and is diagnosed with lupus. With the onset of the Great Recession, Michael Barnett loses his job at Circuit City, the family is overextended financially, and the Barnetts spend part of the frigid Indiana winter in a house without heat.
(Random House Publishing) - “The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius” by Kristine Barnett
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Barnett’s woman-warrior battle — initially, against her husband’s wishes — to defy the experts and unearth Jake’s personality and potential is inspiring. Parents of children with developmental challenges, as well as those blessed with normally functioning children, will take away a lot from “The Spark.” After that disastrous visit from the special ed teacher, Barnett asks her husband the key question: “Why is it all about what these kids can’t do? Why isn’t anyone looking more closely at what they can do?” Surely that insight speaks to all types of learning situations.
“The Spark,” though, raises some more vexing issues. As Barnett tells us, her particular gift — evident even in her childhood — involved education. Not all children with special needs are similarly blessed. What happens when those parents decide to defy the experts and just listen to their guts about their children’s curricula? Even Barnett occasionally surrenders to the wisdom of experts: physics professors who tell her about her son’s remarkable gifts, IQ specialists who measure his astounding intelligence. Also troubling is the fact that, despite Barnett’s rebellious stance, the strengths she discerns in the autistic children in her special-needs preschool seem very gender-traditional: The little boys are good at building blocks and taking things apart; the little girls excel at cooking, art and fabricating romantic stories.
These observations are not intended to diminish Barnett’s — and Jake’s — staggering achievements. As one close family friend observes, Jake is most certainly “good news.” He’s a lower-middle-class autistic savant from the heartland who, with the help of his spectacularly determined mother, has found his passions and is well on his way to greatness. Whether Jake’s story and Kristine Barnett’s maverick learning strategies represent good news for other children will probably be debated in educational circles (and book clubs) for years to come.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
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