The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High


The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was watching her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent; it flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, but Katie watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining.

Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out a school psychologist. She wanted to like him. Katie wanted to like most people, particularly adults, and wanted them to like her. She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t one of those girls with simmering disdain for authority, one of those girls who didn’t give a rip what other people thought. She was a pleaser, she knew it, and if that made her meek or anti-feminist or something, she’d deal with that later. In college or her twenties, when she would surely be confident and passionate about things. But  Dr. Berger wasn’t even trying, and she resented him for it. He could at least try to be normal. And who decided to employ this strange, monosyllabic man with his fat fingers and beady eyes? Who decided he would be of use in a high school?

Plus, she was hungry, and the bit of the window she could see revealed a strip of turquoise sky and marshmallow clouds. A Bierstadt painting, she thought, aware that most of her peers would not think of that, would not know Bierstadt. t was a perfect, early October day, and she wanted to be out there with the sun on her shoulders, or at least at lunch. Anywhere but here.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to assimilate, and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her difference, something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; problem, or, worse, learning disability,  sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around. Difference sounded light and special; a blessing. A golden privilege.

She was privileged, Katie knew that. She did not live in a mansion or wear designer clothes, and she went to public school, always had. Even now, despite living in a nice little suburb in close proximity to several posh private schools and only slightly less posh Catholic schools. But Katie had seen the National Geographic specials where a girl her age might already have a baby, might already be worried about how to feed it. She’d seen the commercials for End Hunger Now, the children with distended bellies and dirty fingernails, their doleful eyes pleading with the camera. She knew that the doted on only child of an American Navy Captain was among the most privileged young women in the world. Despite her clothes from Target and knock-off Uggs. Despite her mother’s coupon envelope.

She also knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “How’s it going dealing with your weird color issue?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too.

The thing is, he was weird, with his little eyes; like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. How could hair turn gray in a steak, like Cruella Deville? But it did, apparently.

Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who smelled like cough medicine and seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Mmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was over. She had lunch next; Wally would be waiting soon.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, like at her old school, but a sustained intercom beep. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. It was just a name, based on something that didn’t exist anymore, like phones being called phones, when they were computers that could make calls.

Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck her as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.


Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director or a science prodigy. She had never tried to invent anything in her basement or been written about in any publication. Katie didn’t have a particular talent that she knew of, and her learning difference did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, or enable her to do anything at all. It got in her way.

Katie saw colors. And personalities. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, but in letters and words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though the word table was a green word in her mind, despite the letters T-A-B-L and E having their own color,  and a yellow ball was a yellow ball even if ball was red. Even worse was the fact that ball placed the letter L–an aloof, shy letter, next to a friendly A on one side and an arrogant S on the other. Numbers were similar: three and five were white and orange, respectively, but thirty-five was no color at all in Katie’s mind, possibly because she was too busy noticing that three was bubbly and exuberant, and five was quiet and  hostile; they did not get along.

It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, to one extent or another, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. She decided to give herself a break from the chaos of it, and temporarily ceased reading. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring.  Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors was small potatoes.

In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit! books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second-through-fourth grades, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, which placed numbers not only side-by-side but also on top of each other, in arrangements that clashed and blended, depending on their colors, lending the problem unintentional significance in the wrong places.  Coloring maps was even worse; it took all her strength to follow the directions and color California green, when the correct color in her mind was white. It felt like she was obstructing truth. It felt like a betrayal.

It was Katie’s sixth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Mrs. Houser, taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested, noticed Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to have her tested, an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a  Dr. Doofenshmirtz-like scientist cackled nearby and planned the demise of the Tri-State area. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? For the McDonalds, a few Bs and that one C were better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. She was simply a late-bloomer, a sheltered, only child. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue-gray eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school? They chuckled when they talked about it; yes, everyone was like this in middle school.

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence. Mrs. Houser had been a formidable woman. A tiny woman, but a woman to be reckoned with. She’d have made a good admiral or general, Katy’s father said. So they had her tested, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that other people do not see  letters as having personalities and colors. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side; an arrogant R next to a shy, worried U in the word rural, for example–it was always more difficult with adjectives, since the personalities of the letters interfered with the meaning of the word—and that other people do not panic when they are told to “color Indiana blue” on a map when Indiana is pale sage green in their mind.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

The next year, back in the US, there was a faculty meeting at Macarthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly eighty percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Their good intentions were, of course, humiliating; Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils. She liked the smooth, shiny cylinders of color, liked how they felt in her hand.

Occasionally, a graduate student or PhD candidate arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal. And by then she’d be in college—impossible to think of—and to come home to a place that felt like home would be exquisite.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d known when they were living on base in San Diego and then again in Naples, because Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie not only lost Abby, but the rest of her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. She knew this, and knew that it was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped.

Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had things on her mind other than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from Macarthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

In the second week of sophomore year, at lunch time at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at Macarthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not mean that she was autistic. The Spectrum, it turned out (her parents researched it), is a very nebulous thing. And Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore one strand of his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Her parents insisted she ride the bus freshman year so that she might make friends, and sent her out the door with a kiss on the cheek and the expectation that she do so. So Katie tried to be nice to the eclectic bunch standing grimly on the corner in the mornings, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and if it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, the year before, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school in September unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. Now that Katie was a sophomore, he was a junior, but he looked about twenty, she thought. Maybe twenty-one.  He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still.

Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. Those boys repulsed her when she was young, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, their need for noise and mild violence when playing. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father and grandfather might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. A serious boy, whose t-shirt belied muscles underneath and had just a few hairs peeking out the neckline, which made her dizzy. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” table at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with what she hoped was a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting. Killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with Spectrum Club printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart. Smartest guy in the school I bet.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or bands or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about film making, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and had apparently possessed a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he was autistic or had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if they counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.  And it wasn’t a club whose main purpose was to check a box that said “well-rounded” on college applications, like debate or Model UN. This was a club you might want to leave off your college applications, which lent it some appeal for a girl who always followed the rules.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourette Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen, or at least never noticed. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, Katie remembered, Dagny had been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool hazel-orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe? A boy’s room with dark browns and pale grays, like in Pottery Barn Teen?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Brooks-Pierce said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes, or maybe she looks like trouble in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.”

Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade, leaving a two year gap before he came back again as a freshman who essentially was in graduate school math. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math and science prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, blond father and his regal Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were ethnically un-specific and very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive. There was something about him that didn’t quite register; a failure to connect that even good looks couldn’t assuage, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Natasha were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literally’ when it wasn’t literal at all), carved in stone.