Updated: Oct 14, 2018
Written by: Heather
Becoming a strong woman was never anything I planned on. It wasn't something I thought about while I was growing up or said to people when they ask “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Can you imagine a 10-year-old version of me--or you--answering with “I want to be a hard ass bitch that can endure a life that is like a hurricane?” No. Me either. Maybe it’s a better answer than “I want to be a ballerina.” I use to think strong women were born strong. Strength seemed to be a trait a person inherited from their parents. Strength seemed like eye color or natural talent. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that strength isn't always something one is born with; strength is something that is developed. Becoming a strong woman happens through need. Becoming a strong woman is something that takes time. Becoming a strong woman is not something you chose, but something that chooses you.
Motherhood is also something that chooses you. Some women long for it and work towards it without “achieving” a successful pregnancy. Some women are taken by surprise when the pregnancy test shows a plus sign. Motherhood is one of those things that made me strong. I think motherhood has made a strong woman out of a lot of weak girls. Suddenly there is a new life in your body and you are creating. Creating life. Sharing life. Growing another life force that is separate from you, but so much you that some don't distinguish between the two. From the moment of conception energy is created anew. Shockingly, from the moment of implantation your body tries to destroy this foreign life force. This new life sucks life and energy from your body. Your body sees it as an intruder and a parasite.
Strong women are not born. They are created. Strong women are not simply gifted magically with strength, but strong women are made by this hurricane we call life.
“The Spark” is the story of a boy named Jacob who was labeled as “retarded,” unable to learn, and severely autistic. Written by his mother Kristine Burnett, it’s the story of how her connection to him broke through those heavy words and connected to parts of him she felt in her mom gut were buried deep inside the behaviors everyone else saw.
By the time her first son, Jake, was three years old doctors, specialists and those in the know had already told Kristine Burnett her child was “unable to learn,” “retarded,” and autistic. Jake had learned to talk and then stopped talking, he’d learned to play in typical ways and then refused. He preferred to spin his body in circles, spin his toys in circles, line up his cars, make intricate patterns with hundreds of crayons, dump out the contents of cereal boxes, drape string in wild webs around the room in beautiful disasters of mess and beauty. The professionals hoped to teach him life skills so that he would be able to dress and feed himself, but they didn’t seem to express much hope in his achieving those goals.
While his special education preschool teachers saw Jake’s diagnosis, Kristine saw Jake. She knew Jake intimately as only a mother can know a child. She knew Jake’s future held more than the specialists’ expectations. Kristine and her husband Michael pulled Jake from the special education preschool with the plan of enrolling him into regular kindergarten in two years. Kristine and Michael became advocates. They bravely went against recommendations. They did this with fear and trepidation; the type of fear one can only know when they are advocating for their own child and the risk is very high. The risk is the child’s future.
While juggling a new baby, a child with severe autism and a home daycare, Kristine, by default, became Jake’s primary therapist. She opened her home in the evenings for what she referred to as kindergarten boot camp. During these evenings she helped Jake and other at-risk children practice daily routines that would take place in a typical classroom.
Eighteen months after Jake had stopped speaking he started speaking again. He started talking during car rides, as most young children do, but when Kristine started really listening she realized he was reading road signs, billboards, and licence plates. He also started reading the phone numbers on signs. He not only read the phone numbers but he added up the ten digits. Jake became obsessed with astronomy and started lugging around a heavy astronomy book filled with small type. Before long Kristine knew he was reading this book with understanding and began taking him to college level lectures on astronomy at the planetarium. Jake was 3 years old.
Even though Jake had made huge strides in his social skills, Kristine says she had to sneak him into a regular kindergarten classroom. After a couple of months in a typical kindergarten classroom teachers and administration agreed that Jake was a good fit in typical kindergarten.
By first grade Jake was reading at a third to fourth grade reading level, by the end of first grade Jake had a perfect math score on the GED prep test, and by the end of third grade he was expressing his discontent with school and he started to regress. After school he would come home and shove himself into a cube shelf and stay for hours there.
During a battery of tests that included the Wechsler Fundamentals Academic Skills test it was determined that Jake's level of knowledge was immeasurable, it was decided that Jake would enroll in college. He was in fifth grade by this time.
While in college and surrounded by other Honors College students and brilliant faculty Jake was in the best place he could be. He had a stimulating learning environment, and peers he connected with. For Jake's whole life he had to explain to people how he thought and what he thought and during this time he finally had other people that could relate to him and understand him. Kristine explained that Jake genuinely finds that math and science are the most beautiful things on earth. In university science departments Jake found other people that shared his passion for math and science.
Jake’s first job was being a researcher at Indiana Purdue University-Purdue University Indianapolis. When he was hired he became the youngest astrophysicist researcher in the world. While he was working as a researcher his teacher gave him a problem to solve that hadn’t ever been solved before. Jake worked night and day obsessively on the problem until Kristine became concerned that working on it was becoming detrimental to his health. Then one day he solved the problem which gave him the opportunity to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Why is this story so remarkable? Is it because the book perfectly written? Is it because Kristine perfect? Or has Jake “overcome autism”? The answer to all of those questions is no. The book has an overwhelming amount of information in it. Kristine’s life was overwhelming, and I think that’s something she wanted to portray, but it made the book overwhelming. Kristine herself isn’t perfect. There were times I felt annoyed with her during this journey. I wondered where she got all of her energy and ideas and I felt insecure when I compared myself to her. Jake did not overcome his autism, and neither has anyone else for that matter. Jake says his autism makes him who he is. So what makes this story and this book so remarkable?
It’s remarkable to consider that a mother was told her child wouldn’t ever talk, or run, or read or write, and she knew in her gut that wasn’t accurate. Not only did she know it wasn’t accurate, she trusted her gut, she went against mainstream treatments, and she came up with fresh ideas for her child. She tuned into her own child and determined what was best for him. In a day when parents are told from conception by professionals what is best for their children, Kristine is groundbreaking and mold breaking in her approach to parenting. Kristine is a momma bear set on fire prepared to face an army alone in order to fight for what she knows is best for her child. Without the fight Kristine put up for Jake the world would be without a beautiful mind and a beautiful heart. Jake is changing science. I believe he will change the world and people will be talking about him and his science for hundreds of years to come. I hope when they do that they mention his audacious mother and her fight for him, because that is what makes this story so remarkable. It’s the story of a strong woman. It’s the story of a strong momma. It’s the story of a woman who put everything on the line and took a risk. And the risk was worth it.