Practically every staff member that passed Pixel Stephens in the hallway greeted her, unless she beat them to it. The brief conversations that followed branched beyond surface-level questions and were accompanied with a genuine listening ear.
For a girl who “doesn’t consider herself to be good at socialization,” Stephens’ impact at Mica Peak High School is remarkable. The 160-student independent high school in the Central Valley School District aims to reinvigorate students who have been discouraged by traditional learning environments, and Stephens is a textbook success story of this.
“She leads by example,” said Dan Oster, dean of student services. “Not so much by leading the parade, but by her behavior. That impacts the students and staff.”
Stephens is universally described by those at Mica Peak as respectful, encouraging and kind; she doesn’t seek to cross the finish line first, but prefers to help engage peers. Despite having skipped second grade at Fernan Elementary School, which means graduating high school before her 17th birthday, the spunky teen prefers to connect and contribute.
She started her education in Coeur d’Alene but found that the lack of challenge at times, coupled with characteristics of a social outlier – autism and asexuality – resulted in a less-than-satisfactory learning environment.
So, she bounced around to a few schools. Lake City freshman year, Central Valley sophomore year, then Spokane Valley Learning Academy, and then she finally struck pay dirt in the educational environment at Mica Peak.
“This was the year I rebounded academically,” said Stephens, who is wrapping up the year with straight A’s. “I came here my junior year, and I feel I’ve been able to receive that kind of support while still being able to be challenged as a learner, because that’s very important to me. That’s really been the main contributing factor to my success.”
Beyond academics, Mica Peak helped bolster her social identity. Coming out as asexual didn’t feel like a big deal once she was comfortable among a few friends. Her family was supportive, and now she is as outwardly open about being a member of the LGBTQIA community as she is being a person on the autism spectrum.
Stephens lives with pervasive development disorder – not otherwise specified, but unless she told you, the only tipoff would be subtle accommodations allowed via a 504 Plan, which includes typed assignments and headphones to promote focus and prevent sensory overload.
Even though these elements of the self-named teenager’s identity may not be outwardly identifiable, she doesn’t fly under the radar as a whole. The Lady Gaga-loving teen doesn’t bow to “fast fashion,” as she calls it, but loves to thrift, evident in a sparkly sweater that peeked from underneath her hoodie. Even her style is another way to catch her in a passionate conversation.
“Pixel’s abilities just blow me away all the time,” said Leslie Heffernan, a history teacher who had Stephens as a teacher’s assistant. “The fact that she’s so open in talking about autism, and I hope others see themselves in her and feel inspired to embrace their abilities, no matter what they are.”
French and civics teacher Marcy James caught Stephens in passing to tell her how much she would miss her, but also to thank her for being the “file queen extraordinaire” who established an organization system in her classroom.
“I felt like I’ve learned something from her,” Oster said. “She has a lot of character traits that are going to serve her very well as an adult.”
It is clear that Stephens’ impact will remain even after graduation – and not only because Stephens and her mother, Karen, who are reigning champions of the school Cahoots bracket, won’t be there to make a clean sweep in the trivia tournament. Though she may not have definitive post-grad plans, she maintains an open mind and hopes to volunteer at the school in the future.
Libby can be reached at (509) 459-5523 or email@example.com
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.