The night before my first day of high school, I laid in bed wide awake, the butterflies in my stomach fluttering as I pondered what my life for the next four years would be like. I remember having to turn on a movie to distract myself from my nervous thoughts, or else I would’ve never fallen asleep. Would my classes be hard? Would I get lost? Would I make friends easily?
Were the typical stereotypes of the jocks and cheerleaders being mean true? How would I find a small group to make me feel at home amidst thousands of teens? These are questions that all teens worry about entering high school. However, I had a big question lingering on top of all these: How would being in a wheelchair and having SMA affect all of this?
My biggest fear was that people wouldn’t treat me like a “normal” high schooler. Sure, I had my best friends coming with me from middle school, but being thrown in a new environment with nearly 700 people I’d never met before was still intimidating.
The first day was full of cheesy icebreaker activities, and I met a nice girl in my first period class, so everything was going smoothly. However, at one point, my senior mentor encouraged me to join a club that aims to build friendships as they partner “normal” students (“peers”) with students that have intellectual disabilities (“buddies”). I found myself a bit flustered, as I wasn’t sure if she meant that I should join as a peer or a buddy. Then, an idea dawned on me that helped me get extremely involved in high school: If I don’t want people to treat me differently, I shouldn’t let myself be treated differently—I shouldn’t portray myself as someone to be treated differently, because I’m not.
After this little epiphany of mine, I started joining activities that I was interested in. For me, those activities were choir, literary magazine, and student government. And then, once I was done wading in the water, I dove in and started leading those activities I was interested in. In some ways, it is ironic that I became the leader of the community service branch of our student government when I can’t even hold the door open for someone, but that is exactly why I went for it—because although I inevitably need a lot of help, I am in fact capable of and love helping others as well, and because if any “normal” high schooler can do it, I can too, since I am a “normal” high schooler.
Yes, there are limitations to this mindset I have about getting involved. I mean, I can’t become the quarterback of the football team for obvious reasons, but neither can anyone with a lack of hand-eye coordination. What I can do is participate in the things I’m passionate about—that’s something that everyone can do.
So, my biggest advice to some incoming high schoolers with SMA would be the same advice I’d give to any incoming high schoolers, which is also the same advice everyone gives you before high school but it goes in one ear and out the other (I know, I was there once): Explore the opportunities around you and get involved. High school can seem daunting, but joining clubs is what makes the big place a lot smaller, and it’s where you meet the people who become your best friends. Here’s a pro-tip helpful for just SMA students though: Know how many miles per hour your wheelchair goes—you’ll get that question a lot as an icebreaker.
And by the way, yes, I got lost a few times, but no, cheerleaders aren’t always mean.
First impressions are crucial for everyone in that they can determine how someone views you for a lasting time. Unfortunately, first impressions often involve an individual’s appearance, and for those of us with SMA, our differences are all the more apparent.