Tall, joyous, quirky and noticeably at ease with herself, Steller Secondary School sophomore Iris Tullar hasn't decided what she'll be when she grows up. Asked to define her future self, her best and perhaps most earnest answer was simply "an intellectual."

Not that being an intellectual is simple. She's fought hard to find her rightful place among the mysterious and sometimes not-so-nice subcultures in which school-aged children immerse themselves. The cattiness. The cliques. By the time Iris hit seventh grade, she'd had enough.

In middle school she abandoned traditional public school for a school of choice, Steller Secondary, and now complements the experience by traveling to Bartlett High School to take Chinese and advanced placement U.S. history, courses Steller doesn't offer.

The smaller, freer environment of Steller immediately paid off, she said. At 15 years old, she's finally giving sports a try, despite having banned them for years. She's serving as class president, unheard of for a sophomore. She's participating in Model UN. Doing theater. Perhaps most importantly, she's made friends.

"I was on cloud nine. It was amazing. I didn't even know you could have best friends like that. I thought they only existed in books," Iris said during an interview last week, as some of those same friends tapped on the window separating Steller's office area from the hallways, offering smiles and waves hello.

Iris today is a long way from the second-grader who didn't read, from the girl who got teased for bringing green spinach tortillas for lunch, from the "weird" girl who spent her elementary school career dressed in crazy-colored outfits and indulging her flare for the dramatic. Finally, though, in fourth grade, a beacon of light entered her universe, a teacher named Ms. Lesko.

"She believed in me," Iris said, distilling why that particular teacher made such an impact.

Turns out, Iris made quite the impression herself.

"Iris ... always reminded me of a character from the book 'Stargirl' by Jerry Spinelli," Danielle Lesko -- who now teaches at Kincaid Elementary -- explained in an email. "... The basic premise is a new student 'Stargirl' arrives at Mica High, a school that prides itself on conformity and tradition. Stargirl turns the high school halls upside down and inside out because she dresses in kimonos, strums the ukulele, cheers for the other team and celebrates the birthday of strangers -- she is unapologetically herself. And that was Iris -- from the very first day of her fourth grade year. Unapologetically herself!"

Iris wore feathers in her hair, mismatched socks, and armed herself with notebooks and novels, always at the ready to put into words some fanciful tale about knights or fairies or princesses. Always, Iris named her characters after her classmates and never left anyone out.

"During snack break we would gather around her while she sat on top of her desk and she would read to us, the whole class waiting to hear which character they would play in her latest plot," Lesko said.

And then there was the time Iris decided to do something a little different during Ms. Lesko's open mic Friday.

"She took the microphone, asked to dim the lights and while sitting on (a) tall stool sang about roses and love and truth," Lesko said. "I had a sinking suspicion that she was making up the words on the fly, but regardless, it was entertaining, inspiring and …well, brave. When she finished her last note, we shared a quiet moment of disbelief and then her classmates erupted into applause."

That fourth-grade year, in that classroom, was the first time Iris said she'd felt valued as a young person at school. Now, six years later, Iris is still very much that same Iris, undeniably herself, still belting out tunes, this time in a newly formed misfit band. And she is, finally, among what her mom would call "her people." Getting into theater helped. So did choosing a more suitable school.

"I was apprehensive to start over, but I'm so glad I did," Iris said after a morning period spent visiting and laughing with me at Steller as I fired off random questions and tried to get to better know this accomplished teenager.

The most profound thing I walked away with that day was how much I liked being around her. If I had middle school or high school to do all over again, I'd want to sit with Iris at lunch, tell jokes with her and write bad songs together. She's one of those rare people who makes you feel good just by being nearby. This, coupled with a noticeable lack of self-consciousness -- that timeless trait of teens everywhere -- makes her all the more impressive.

It wasn't just a change of schools that made life more comfortable for Iris. It was Iris working on Iris, mindfully tending to herself and her values through Falun Dafa, a Chinese spiritual practice she first learned from her dad. She started doing it with him when she was very young, but it wasn't until her eighth-grade summer that she more intentionally incorporated it into her own daily life.

Its guiding principles, zhen (truthfulness), shan (compassion) and ren (forbearance or tolerance) guide her today. It's why she's pursuing Mandarin Chinese -- she wants to be able to read untranslated texts and speak to Falun Dafa's practicing elders in their native language.

She meditates four times a day for 15 minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less, carving out the time whenever there's a "lull in the action." Her mom, Liberty Kyser, has witnessed how a few minutes of meditation allow Iris to ground herself. A bad mother-daughter fight? School stress? Nervousness? Fear? Meditation is Iris' fix. It lets the meaningless wash away, and leaves her aligned with her core values. But it's not a total cure-all. She still dislikes mean people and bad grammar.

Over the years Iris has learned to stop worrying about what other people think, because it's a waste of time. In the long run, they're not going to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about what you did or said or how you dressed, so why should you worry about what they're saying or thinking now?

"Who cares? No one cares. You just have to feel comfortable in your own skin," Iris explained.

Which may be why this winter this straight-A, self-described non-athletic student decided to try something new that she wasn't sure she could master: she joined the West High School cross-country ski team.

"I'm not very good at it, but I've fallen in love with it," Iris said. "My only goal for the season was 'don't give up.' It's just a good thing to try to really get outside my comfort zone."

Having the bravery to do difficult things and still be true to herself seems to be Iris' "magic." She's a natural mentor and leader, and incredibly kind. Her teachers universally describe her as energetic and brilliant.

Plus, if smiles could win races for her, Iris would be a gold medalist. She has the kind of smile that comes from within and physically lifts her up a few inches as the edges of her lips curl into her cheeks and her head tilts slightly back. It showed up when I asked her about her love of giving handmade gifts to friends and teachers, of baking, of YouTube, of books.

She beamed even brighter, but with a greater weight of heart, when I asked her about the lessons she'd learned from her mom and dad.

From her dad, a gregarious man who she said can get a whole East Coast subway train of people talking, she learned hard work, perseverance and the importance of people skills.

And from her mother?

"That whole female empowerment thing," she said. "There's no idea that's too big. There's no opportunity that's beyond reach. She taught me everything I know."

Kyser, Iris's mom, is also working to teach her daughter how to cultivate work-life balance, and that self-care is as important as any other pursuits one might undertake. Because Iris staying Iris, in all her goofy glory, is the most valuable part of it all.

"One of my biggest goals and accomplishments as a parent has been encouraging Iris to be herself, and my lifelong hope for her is that she always remain true to self," Kyser said.

As for Iris, her own advice is this: "Be kind. Don't care what people think. Be yourself." Powerful words from an inquisitive young woman who is hungry for more of everything.

Iris is working hard to earn scholarships to be able to go to the best school she can get into without amassing massive debt. She thinks she'd like to study business management with a focus on advertising and sales, and minor in political science or technical theater, a menu she calls her "rough draft" for the future. She also wants to travel, to experience people and explore new places.

So look out world -- Iris the intellectual is headed your way.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

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