Born with a rare affliction damaging her ability to see, Shelby Johnson has never been able to rely on her vision like most others. She also has never let it stop her.
Nystagmus causes the brain to send signals to muscles in the eyes that involuntarily makes them move back and forth. After undergoing two corrective surgeries, the movement in Johnson’s eyes is now slight and far less noticeable, but the disease nonetheless causes the muscles in her eyes to become tired and her vision to progressively worsen.
Her vision is now 20-80 — not legally blind, but also a significant disadvantage compared to most of the population.
Yet Johnson graduated this year with the rest of her Hahnville High School senior classmates as one very accomplished Tiger, not just getting it done in the classroom but also while pursuing her passions as a singer and stage actor.
How does she do it without clear vision?
“They say when one sense is dulled, another is heightened,” Johnson said. “So my hearing is very good. For instance, when someone drops a pen, it makes me jump. I touch a lot of things so I can quickly get familiar with surroundings.”
Teachers made her tests and papers with bigger print to help her and she would sit in front of the class to get the best possible view of the board.
“There’s really no cure for it,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of coping with it each day. I’ve learned to do that so it’s not that big a deal to me.”
She began stage acting in the fifth grade after one of her teachers recommended she try it. Once she hit the stage, she fell in love with the art.
“You can be someone you’re not and step into another world for a few hours. I just love it,” Johnson said. “It comes with challenges. Backstage, it’s dark, obviously, and so I can’t really maneuver around the set pieces. Castmates understand my condition and they help me. We’re all really close. It’s a true family atmosphere.”
She’s earned quite a bit of acclaim as well. Johnson scored the lead role of Miss Tottendale in “Drowsy Chaperone” this past year in a school play, a production she ranks as her second favorite only to “Hairspray,” in which she played the lead role of Tracy for a community theatre performance. It was her first foray into community theatre — and isn’t likely to be her last.
Johnson says to get into a character, she researches the time period of the story and personality traits of the character. But once she files those mental notes away, she saves her skills for the stage.
“Some people like to do method acting where they go around their house acting like that person for a few weeks. I rather just do it on the spot. I think that’s what makes you a good actor, when you can just do it right there on the stage (and improvise).”
But as much as she loves theatre, she may even love singing more. She sang for two choirs at Hahnville as well as on the stage. She plans to attend Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas, Texas to continue her schooling, where she will study to be a worship leader.
“That’s what my main passion is,” she said. “It’s a very different type of music. It’s fun to switch around. I like how honest it is. I have a really strong faith in God, so I like pouring my heart out to him. When you’re acting, you’re trying to be someone else. But when I’m singing worship music, it’s me talking to God and I really like that.”