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Ruth Johnson at West High

Billings student Ruth Johnson in the West High School library. Johnson overcame her childhood struggle with dyslexia, and now takes advanced placement English courses.

Ruth Johnson used to scoff at the notion that her dyslexia ever could be a good thing.

When she was diagnosed in first grade, relatives told her it could be a blessing.

“I was like 'yeah right, are you kidding me? It’s called a learning disability. It sucks,'” she said.

But Johnson, a West High senior, has gone on to excel in reading and writing — the exact subjects that dyslexia often makes difficult. Along the way, she’s sharpened a tenacious work ethic while expressing unusual empathy and compassion for her peers.

“You have these forced lessons that you’ve got to figure out,” she said. “I blame that on dyslexia in the best possible sense. I wouldn’t want to give it up.”

Early years

Johnson’s parents and teachers grew concerned when she was struggling to read in first grade at the private school she attended. First they checked vision tests, then they came around to the idea of dyslexia — a learning disability with which people process language differently.

She began working with a tutor after school using the Barton System, a dyslexia-specific program.

“It totally sucked. I didn’t want to be there,” she said. “It constantly made me feel like I was dumb.”

Johnson’s mother made a change, home schooling her and her sister for second and third grade. That’s when Johnson began working with Kelly Haggerty.

“When she came in, she was pretty beat down,” Haggerty said. “She said, ‘I’m not good at anything.’ ”

But she began to show progress, and that progress fueled more.

“She is one that will push to the end. She doesn’t give up,” Haggerty said.

A different environment also helped. With homeschooling, her day was less rigid. Tutoring was no longer tacked on after a full school day. And Johnson found strength in her roots.

Her mother and father both work in artistic fields, and art projects became a staple in home-schooled lessons. Johnson had long done such projects, but started to realize that it was more than a pastime.

“It was something that I was good at that people also believed was valuable,” she said.

It also began to show glimpses of why she now views dyslexia as a gift; during one assignment, her mother asked Johnson and her sister to use colored tape to create an image. Johnson began to adhere strips of overlapping tape, creating a solid sheet. Her mother interjected, but Johnson was adamant that she had it under control. She then cut out an image from the tape sheet, instead of creating it with individual strips.

“These kids think outside of the box,” Haggerty said. “If you can catch it early enough and get them moving on the reading writing and spelling part so that they don’t think they’re dumb, they can do anything.”

Johnson was still far from convinced that she could do anything. She returned to school, this time at Arrowhead Elementary, in fifth grade. The comparatively massive class size took her aback, and she said there was a social adjustment. And she still wasn’t confident reading and writing.

“In fifth grade, it felt like I could get by, but that’s my limit,” she said.

Johnson had so far approached reading more like a math equation. Her dyslexia tutoring effectively worked to rewire her brain; the Barton System adheres to established principles based on using letters and sounds to break down reading and spelling, often using sight, hearing, touch and movement. 

Her competitive drive kicked in when she had a chance to test into the middle school honors English program. She made it, and her sixth-grade class put her on a track that got her beyond a “math equation” approach to reading.

“I started to realize that there was literature and not just English,” she said.

That concept took another leap forward her sophomore year, during a course with teacher Steve Macartney.

“He brought this joy back into it,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden it didn’t matter if I couldn’t spell something — it mattered if I had the ability to pull out the truth and story.”

That concept has grown into her Advanced Placement Literature class, where she has a chance to earn college credit.

“It’s like starting to marry those equations and that essence of a story,” she said.

Macartney downplayed his role.

“Nobody worked as hard as she did to be prepared,” he said. “She came in with the right attitude and the right mindset. … I would definitely say that if you tell Ruth she can’t do something, it’s going to make her want to do it all the more.”

Dyslexia may have sharpened Johnson’s competitive drive, but Macartney sees it having a larger affect.

“I think that’s made her very aware and very empathetic to other students in the classroom who may not have an obvious challenge,” he said.

That gets into what Johnson calls “the journey of dyslexia that no one talks about.”

Balance

It goes back to Johnson’s early reaction to her diagnosis and subsequent early struggles.

In elementary school she would sometimes come home crying to her mom: “Can you just fix me?”

It’s common for people with dyslexia to struggle with frustration. While it is a learning disability, it doesn’t affect intellect.

Dyslexia affects between 15 and 20 percent of the general population, but affects up to 80 percent of those who struggle with reading. It's also likely under-identified, as those who struggle with reading often try to mask their difficulties instead of seeking help.

“I still hate the word ‘learning disability,’” she said. “In a sense, of course it is. … (But) I think that there’s this huge stigma about it that people believe when you’re dyslexic.”

For Johnson — an accomplished figure skater — her toughest balancing act is her identity.

“I was willing to accept that I was different, I needed help,” she said, but it’s challenging to avoid the trap of “feeling between 'I’m dumb,' 'I’m less than,' 'I’m subpar,' ... I still struggle at it today."

She lauds school staff who have helped her along the way, and notes the importance of accommodations on a recent college-entrance exam — something that she couldn’t have had without a plan under special education policy that provides resources and support to help her learn better.

Johnson supports a bill at the Montana Legislature that would recognize dyslexia as a learning disability to require screening and support. The bill doesn’t set aside money for schools to do so; legislative staff estimates screening would cost schools statewide about $390,000 in the first year, then $92,000 for each year after.

But she thinks the bill is just a first step.

“I think it’s going to take a lot to get from that step to a proper dyslexia tutoring system,” she said.

Design

Johnson is taking an independent study in graphic design at the Career Center and designed the poster for October’s Billings Ski Swap.

She’s taken several art courses through high school, and eventually gravitated toward the design courses.

“I think it’s something that everyone accesses every day,” she said. “Communication and that relationship that we have with art really is changing.”

Of special appeal is the opportunity to use text beyond its literal meaning, to use its shape, size and style to convey more than a dictionary definition.

Johnson doesn’t know what she wants to do for a career or where she wants to attend college. She’s considering studying fields from graphic design to environmental biology.

“I have so many things that I want to do that it’s going to be hard to narrow them down,” she said. “I definitely know I want to do something with art.”

The way that she talks about her design work carries echoes of the little girl laying tape strips together.

“I don’t really see words,” she said. “I see shapes that are interpreted as letters. Now I get to take those shapes and turn them into what I feel like they should be.”

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