At age 3, Jake was enrolled in “life skills” classes in hopes that he might learn, as Barnett says, to “tie his own shoes at sixteen.” Often, though, Jake was so absorbed by other things — shadows on the floor, plaid patterns on clothing and, especially, alphabet flashcards — that he couldn’t be persuaded to attend to the lessons. At the beginning of “The Spark,” Barnett describes a chilling comment made by Jake’s special ed teacher on a home visit, after insisting that the boy leave his beloved alphabet cards at home: “We don’t think you’re going to need to worry about the alphabet with Jacob.” In other words, she didn’t think Jake would ever learn to read.
That was the moment, Barnett recalls, that she decided to buck the “experts” — she almost always uses that term derisively — take Jake out of special ed classes and homeschool him in an environment that would “lean into his passions.” Jake got alphabet cards galore, as well as maps (another passion) and puzzles. Barnett managed not only to mainstream Jake into kindergarten, she also did the same for many other autistic kids in the learning center, Little Light, that she ran out of her garage.
That achievement alone would be extraordinary, but here’s the kicker: The Barnetts discovered when Jake was a little boy that he’s a math and science prodigy. Turns out, he has an IQ higher than Einstein’s. At 3, Jake was arranging hundreds of crayons in the order of the color spectrum; a few years later, he memorized pi to the 200th digit and could recite it forward and backward. At 9 he began working on a theory in astrophysics that, according to those who can understand it, may put him in line for the Nobel Prize; at 11 he started college. Last summer, at 12, he became a paid university researcher in quantum physics. And, yes, Jake can tie his shoes.
“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.