When kids pass by Jonny Riblet in the hallway at school or in the aisle at the grocery store, his mom can see the curiosity in their eyes. They want to know why Jonny is in a wheelchair, why he doesn’t talk the same way as them.
“They want to know more about him, but they’re too afraid or shy to ask,” Krista Riblet said. “And sometimes they feel sorry for him, but they shouldn’t.”
So Krista, along with Jonny’s dad, Jay Riblet, wrote a monologue that communicates what Jonny would say if he had the chance to tell everyone his story.
The monologue will be featured in Elkhart Central High School’s upcoming fall production, “Through Our Eyes: True Stories from the Lives of Central Students.” The play premieres to the public on Friday evening at the high school.
Jonny will sit in the center of the stage as the monologue is read over the speakers by Jonny’s classmate, John Ponce.
“Hi, I’m Jonny. I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t mean here at Central, I mean here in front of you — alive,” the monologue begins.
Jonny, now 17 and a student at Central, was born eight weeks premature. During birth, his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and was choking him.
His lifeline was killing him.
But his doctor performed CPR and he was rushed to Memorial Hospital of South Bend. Jonny survived, but his brain was deprived of so much oxygen that he sustained brain injury.
Jonny was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination.
While Jonny’s peers were on the playground making friends during childhood, Jonny was devoting his time and energy to physical therapy. He was never invited to a sleepover or a birthday party, and has never known the rush of running around his neighborhood.
“I know I’ll never be able to go to college, get married or have a family of my own,” the voice says during the monologue. “But I do know that even without those things, I have my brother and parents who will always be there for me and love me no matter what… Don’t feel bad for me.”
Krista said having Jonny be part of the fall production has been a great thing for him. The other students have embraced Jonny and have included him in their social circle.
During a recent rehearsal, a student accidentally went backstage with a live mic. Over the auditorium speakers came the sound of students talking to Jonny, and a wide smile spread across Krista’s face.
And for the first time, Krista was able to leave Jonny at school during play rehearsal to go to an appointment without worrying. When she returned, Jonny was laughing with his new friends.
“They are so good to him, they’ve embraced him,” she said. “It’s been awesome that he is part of something big, and it has made me feel better about his future.”
Although she still has fears for Jonny and the years ahead, like what will happen when she and Jay are no longer around to care for him. Or what comes after high school.
Krista and Jay voiced those fears in the monologue: “Remember me and people like me in school. I will really need friends when my parents are gone. I don’t want to live out the rest of my life alone. It scares me to think of being alone in this world. So find me, come visit me, say hi to me and people like me. Give us a smile or a high five if we’re up for it.”
Krista says she also finds comfort in the fact that Jonny has found a home with ADEC, where he has been attending summer camp for nearly a decade. Jonny has also made plenty of friends in ADEC’s After-School Club, which he attends to hang out with his peers and learn life skills that will help him achieve more independence.
She also knows ADEC will be there for Jonny in the future to help him explore the choices and possibilities that life has to offer.
Krista said she hopes the monologue in the the school play will help Jonny’s classmates — and the larger Elkhart County community — understand what it’s like to live with a disability, and how to be kind and accepting to those with disabilities.
“Through Our Eyes” also explores other themes in life, like loss, love and family.
One student wrote a tribute for her friend Makayla McKenzie, a teen pageant queen from Edwardsburg who was killed in a car crash in May.
In one particularly heartbreaking scene, a student reads a monologue written by the brother of DezJuan Sanders, a 14-year-old Elkhart Central High School student who was shot and killed in April 2015.
Another student wrote a monologue about his father leaving him and his mother when he was a baby, and how his shattered heart has motivated him to shatter records on the playing field.
But there are lighthearted and fun segments woven into the play to balance the raw, emotional ones. A few students talk about elementary school crushes, and another reads a poem about the personality of her two dogs — one genius, and the other not so much.
“Through Our Eyes” is a reminder of how much wisdom high school students have to offer. By sharing their personal perspectives about life, the students hope to create a little more understanding and kindness in the world.
You can see the original play for yourself this weekend. Performances will be 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The cost is $8 for adults and $6 for students and senior citizens. Tickets will be available at the door or can be reserved ahead of time by calling 574-295-4700.