The day before high school started, Magdalena spent extra time with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. She needed all the tools she could find to calm her anxiety about a new school filled with new people, new noises, new meals, and new schedules. So much change!
She was still really nervous the next morning.
But a few twitches and a few uncontrollable verbal outbursts helped her self-regulate. Whew. OK. She felt better.
“Ready for school?” Nicki asked. Nicki was careful not to ask if she was ready for a new school–just ready for school.
“Yes, Nicolette!” Magdalena replied. “I think I’m ready.”
The big island had a high school that was designed by and for neurodivergent folk. The school wasn’t exclusive–neurotypicals could go there, too. But it was a place that was set up, first-and-foremost, for neurodivergent students and staff.
It’s a school I would have liked to go to. In fact, in the large urban school district where I worked as a web editor for a few decades, we had an inclusive magnet school like this. Whenever I daydreamed about which magnet school I would have chosen if I were a student in the district, this one always made the list. Even before I realized I was autistic, there was something about this particular school I liked. I felt I’d fit in there, rather than being an outsider.
Magdalena doesn’t really suffer from social anxiety. It’s just new environments and changes to schedules and routines that throw her off balance.
When she got to the school and saw one of the students getting off the bus who looked really sad, she went up to him to see what was wrong.
“Uh, it’s my dad,” he said. “He had a heart attack.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. Well, I can’t really get it into my head that he’s not around anymore.”
Magdalena, having lost her entire family when she was little, was no stranger to grief, so she found a few gentle words to share.
They walked into the building together, and then her new friend headed to the cafeteria to get a quick breakfast before class.
Magdalena headed off to meet the principal, whom she found standing in the hallway.
“Is it loud in here?” asked the principal. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Just a bit,” said Magdalena.
“I’ve put in a request for quieter flooring and for wooden lockers with well-oiled hinges,” the principal said, “but they haven’t been approved yet. Think I should put in a requisition for noise-cancelling headphones?”
“There’s a thought,” replied Magdalena. “I’m OK, though.”
“I’m not,” said the principal, who turned back to her office.
The classroom was set up in traditional manner, with desks and rows and bookcases, and even a whiteboard, with smelly pens to write on it. But the floor was carpeted, and the room was quiet, with just the scratching of pencils in notebooks while the students waited for their teacher to show up.
One of the adjustments the school had made to accommodate students was to hold every subject in the same classroom, with the same instructor, even.
Magdalena’s instructor had a habit of talking with his eyes closed in a monotone voice. But he said really interesting things about sine curves.
But the very best thing about the school were the students.
Take Cat Girl, for example. Magdalena just could not get over her. The lip gloss! She was too purrfect.
And this guy.
Oh, this guy.
Oh. Man. This. Guy. Even before she learned his name, which is Kareem Okada, Magdalena fell for him. He was in her class! Sitting next to her! Oh, how lucky!
At lunch, she met Hat Girl.
Magdalena simply felt that she could be herself, no mask, no pretending to be different, and she could fit in! Everyone here was so unique!
It’s what she’d always wanted in a school, and something she was afraid she’d never get.
Even the teachers were cool. The Room 2 teacher took his lunch in the cafeteria and sat at the same table with the students. He joked and talked and interrupted them when they were studying, but it was still cool.
And then, Kareem. He sat next to her during lunch.
Magdalena didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter. She could just look at him all day, and it would be enough!
And when Hat Girl sat down on the lunchroom floor to do her homework, Magdalena could just about burst with happiness! It’s hard to describe how it feels to be in a group of people your own age and not be the weirdest one there! It’s liberating, comforting, accepting–it’s just all the good things! Magdalena could be herself and belong! No one would shun her if she said the wrong thing, or twitched, or had a verbal outburst. She didn’t have to hold everything in all tight and restricted. She could be herself, and she could fit in.
She was trying to work up the courage to become friends with Cat Girl. They sat next to each other in the computer lab the next day. Though neither of them spoke, Magdalena felt really happy. Just doing computer things side-by-side was sort of like a start to a friendship!
In class the next day, Magdalena looked for Kareem, but he wasn’t there. She found him after school, in the exam prep in Room 2.
“I didn’t see you in class,” she said, softly. But he heard her, anyway.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s really embarrassing, but I was in the wrong class. I’m supposed to be in Room 2, not Room 1.”
“Well, I’m glad you made the mistake yesterday so I had a chance to meet you,” Magdalena said.
“Me, too,” he replied.
Magdalena was so happy with her new school that she smiled the whole time while doing her homework after supper.
“Your new school suits you, eh?” asked Jonah.
“Yes,” she replied with a giggle. “And even better, I suit it!”
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