Today, at age 15, Jacob Barnett is recognized as a genius. But when he was two, experts believed he would never learn to read, or possibly even speak. Kristine Barnett’s memoir The Spark (released in April 2013) tells the story of her refusal to accept the standard therapy for her son’s autism and attempt to draw him out by responding to his interests in math, physics, and astronomy.
I picked up The Spark one evening after dinner and, fifty pages in, announced to my husband, “This book is a one-nighter.” Which meant I would have it read cover-to-cover by bedtime. I think I may have taken one break to grab a cupcake from the kitchen (as you’ll see later, the book mentions cupcakes, which made it really hard not to want one), but I still reached the last of 250 pages at 10:15 p.m., just a hair later than I usually hit the sack. The book was that good.
While it certainly helped that it was well-written and the story carefully crafted to induce suspense, it’s really the content that hooked me. I’ve always believed that traditional education get things wrong by setting everyone a certain set of skills they have to master in a certain order, and in an environment that detaches them from any purpose or other meaningful context. Reading about the “therapy” that two-year-old Jacob was put through for more than eight hours every day–speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, applied behavior analysis–was heartbreaking to me, because I knew exactly what was going on: he couldn’t pay attention because he was terribly, mind-bogglingly bored. Of course he didn’t see any reason to learn to speak if everyone around him was someone who thought this crap was interesting. Would you want to learn Chinese just so you could have endless conversations about the details of manufacturing toothpicks?
I couldn’t put the book down because I was hoping beyond hope that Jacob’s mother would see what was happening and put a stop to it. Miracle of miracles, she did. I actually got tears in my eyes when I read, “As any mother would instinctively know to snatch her baby back from the edge of a campfire, I knew I had to snatch my baby out of special ed.”
I was never in special ed. And I wasn’t a genius. So I never had it nearly as bad as Jacob. Nevertheless, I was always terribly bored with school. I knew in my bones that it wasn’t right to keep children in that restrictive environment, day after stultifying day. I knew that the world was brimming with possibilities–things to learn, things to do, things to create. And in school, we weren’t allowed time for any of those things. We were only allowed time for worksheets. And textbooks. And math drills.
My favorite part of The Spark is when seven-year-old Jacob–who, due to his mother’s willingness to throw out the advice of the experts and focus on his interest in math and astrophysics, has now discovered the will to communicate with the outside world–discovers the test prep section at Barnes & Noble. Jacob (unlike me) loves taking tests, and he suddenly discovers more tests than he’s ever dreamed of. “ACT! PSAT! SAT! MCAT! GMAT! LSAT! Here were pages and pages of numbered problems, and lots of them were math! He looked at me reproachfully, as if I’d deliberately been withholding this wonderful treat.”
Standardized tests are nothing I would ever do for fun, but I knew that reproachful look. It was the same one I’d had on my own face when, at ten years old, I discovered an article in my local paper about kids who learned at home. How, for ten whole years, could my mother have failed to tell me about homeschooling? That very day, I asked her to let me come home. And she did. She let me homeschool for the rest of fifth grade. Then, because of her work schedule, I had to go back to school for the middle grades, but I kept pestering her, and when high school rolled around, she let me come home for good.
I can still remember the relief I felt walking out those school doors for the last time. No longer would anyone else be in charge of my time, telling me what to learn or how to learn it. I was going to devote myself to doing things that I knew were important: writing screenplays, designing house plans, programming computers, growing a vegetable garden, learning French and Chinese and American Sign Language. I was incredibly fortunate to have a mother who, like Kristine Barnett, believed in her child enough to go against convention and let the child take the lead in her own learning. Now my mother tells me she wishes she’d done even more of that.
Much of Kristine Barnett’s book is devoted to describing her work with children besides her son. She ran a daycare in her home and began an evening program for children with autism. She describes the radical improvements that occurred when she took each child’s passion seriously–whether it was for art, electronics, or even cupcakes. When she connected with kids on a human level, their social and academic skills blossomed.
“Why is it all about what these kids can’t do?” asks Barnett. “Why isn’t anyone looking more closely at what they can do?” Unfortunately, that’s the way our education system is designed. There are certain skills and facts everyone is supposed to know, and we’re going to get them into you if we have to drill through your skull with a jackhammer. I wish more people saw what Barnett saw: that all children are hungry to learn, but you have to make it worth their while. You have to focus on their passions, and let the other stuff merely serve those passions.
The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius is not only the compelling story of saving one very gifted little boy from the ravages of conventional education, it’s a window into the minds and hearts of all children, a window that our society sorely needs.
If you enjoy The Spark, I also highly recommend John Holt’s How Children Learn.