I’m not a big reader of nonfiction at this point in my life, but something about the cover of this book caught my eye at the library. Have you seen a more winsome cover? When I read the entire title–The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius–I promptly decided to check it out. As I hope is obvious from the nature of my blog, I am very interested in motherhood and nurturing and education. Whether any of my children are geniuses or not still remains to be seen. ;-) Although I might not have that much in common with the family in this story, I loved this book. It’s one of those that I willingly talked about to anyone who would listen–mostly to my sister, who has worked with special needs children for years, and my husband, who has a vested interest in education, both because we homeschool and because it’s his vocation. Kristine Barnett has told a story that is both amazing and inspiring, and she manages to take her family’s situation and say some really encouraging things about education through the lens of their unique circumstances.
I had never even heard of Jacob Barnett before I read this book, but I don’t get out much. ;-) I have since learned that this thirteen year old boy, diagnosed with autism as a preschooler, is a young teenager with an I.Q. that rivals Einstein’s. He’s currently a Ph.D. student in the field of astrophysics. You can read more about him and even watch a few video interviews, etc., here.
Besides the fact that this is just a great story, what I loved so much about it is how much Kristine Barnett advocated for her son. For example, she was determined that he would enter kindergarten in a regular classroom, despite the fact that his autism diagnosis automatically locked him into an education with an IEP. She was so determined, in fact, that she started what she called “kindergarten bootcamp” in her home after her daycare closed in the evening. Several night a week, autistic kids came with their parents to her home and worked on social and school-related skills, like lining up and participating in circle time, etc. Instead of focusing on a myriad of therapies, Kristine instead put all her eggs in the basket of each child’s passion. She followed a philosophy she calls “muchness”–totally allowing the kids to immerse themselves into what brings them joy, and using that to teach them what they need to know. For example, one autistic girl who loved to bake eventually learned to read because Kristine let her bake cookies and then decorate them with the alphabet. Kristine would go over-the-top with whatever the kids loved. She did nothing by halves. This resulted in amazing things for all the children involved, with all of them handling kindergarten mostly with aplomb and far exceeding anyone’s, including the experts’, expectations of them.
I never expected this story to really personally affect me, but it has. Besides the fact that it’s completely engrossing and well-written, I began to think about my own home and homeschool. If “muchness” and allowing children to follow their passions works for autistic children, mightn’t it work for typical children, too? Here’s a confession: I don’t always jump on my girls’ bandwagons for what they want to do. In fact, Lulu received a nice sewing machine for her birthday last year from Steady Eddie and Me, but she has only had it out and running a handful of times because I don’t enjoying sewing. I have this crazy notion that she has to do everything “right”–according to the book–but after reading The Spark, I decided to just let her get her sewing machine out and have at it. If it gets messed up, who cares? At least she got to use it. If everything she makes doesn’t turn out just so, who cares? At least she is practicing. So far Lulu has made at least one stuffed rabbit, one little fabric bag, and she monogrammed pieces of felt (her machine has some decorative stitches) for some friends we went swimming with this week. She has all of this ideas about what she wants to make, and she’s planning to enter something that she makes in the state fair next month. This burgeoning passion and skill, even, wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t realized how important this is. The Spark (as well as the writings of Julie Bogart, but that’s a different post) has opened my eyes to something wonderful and messy and alive.
There are so many things I’d like to say about this book, but time won’t permit me to share everything. I will say that I learned by reading this book what real genius looks like, and it’s not just simply being smarter than everyone else. (Well, it is that, too, possibly, but it’s so much more.) I do want to share a quotes in addition to the one I already shared:
Whenever I meet an autistic kid who has made progress, I know that someone fought hard for that kid. No matter what the accomplishment–whether he’s toilet trained or in secondary school, whether he’s recently started talking again or has gotten his first job, I know that someone behind that child believed in him and that they fought for him.
I came to see my maternal intuition as a compass pointing true north. Ignoring it could never yield a good result. In those cases where the needle was pointing away from where the experts wanted me to go, I had to trust what I call “mother gut.” I know that if Jake had stayed in special ed, we would have lost him, and this light that now burns so brightly would have been extinguished forever. (102)
If you’re looking for a book to inspire you for this new school year or just in parenting in general, The Spark is it. Highly, Highly Recommended. (Random House, 2013)
I’m making peace with the mess. Yes, I am.