The evening of Jan. 13, 1994, was a snowy night that Bethany Brooks will never forget.
She and then fiance David Brooks were driving in their car over the Anthony Wayne Bridge into downtown Toledo. Her young son and daughter, Michael and Stephany Johnson, were on board.
Near the bottom of the bridge, David lost control on the icy downhill slope and the car hit a utility pole head on. All four were injured, none more severely than 6-year-old Stephany.
She had a broken right femur (thigh) bone, which required surgery and being placed in traction for three months.
Shortly after her removal from traction, Stephany in a body cast from mid-chest to right foot grew curious one day about the construction of the next-door neighbor s driveway.
She maneuvered herself up two steps of a stairway to peek out a small window, but fell and refractured the femur. The bone had to be reset and her recovery process started over from scratch. She was forced to repeat kindergarten.
This turn of events, which delayed Stephany Johnson s start in school, was a small setback compared to the educational challenge she would face in subsequent years. Soon afterward, she was diagnosed with dyslexia.
Dyslexia: a different view
The dyslexia, a reading disability, would eventually cause young Stephany to fall into a lonely, emotional hole of embarrassment and frustration.
I was supposed to be ahead of people [in age] but really I was behind, Johnson said. I didn t really say much because I didn t want anybody to know. I was scared to say something about it. It kept me back emotionally.
I was always thinking, How can I not get anything? I felt like I was dumb and slow and really couldn t understand everything.
Bethany Brooks often jumped into that emotional hole with her daughter, trying in vain to pull Stephany out.
It s hard, she said. It s painful. It s hurtful. I wanted to sit her down and tell her, I want to write this for you, and do that for you. But, if I do it for you, you ll never learn it for yourself. In the end, her strength overcame all of that.
Aftermath: Xavier bound
Flash forward to the present. This week or next, Johnson, now a Bowsher High School senior carrying a grade-point average above 3.0, plans to sign a national letter of intent to accept a basketball scholarship offer from Xavier University in Cincinnati.
She made a verbal commitment during the basketball season, and has qualified academically.
This girl who spent much of her first five years in school in an adjusted curriculum of special education classes because of her reading limitations now includes a pre-calculus math class in her course load.
It is a leap that astounds those familiar with her background.
There are so many kids in special ed who fall through the cracks, Bowsher assistant principal Christine Coleman said. People don t expect them to achieve or excel, so they don t invest the time in them.
It s definitely impressive what Stephany s been able to do. A lot of kids tagged with that special ed label live up to that stereotype that they re not smart, so they don t want better for themselves.
As a four-year starter and a three-time All-City League first-team player who scored 1,274 points in her career, Johnson s basketball talents were no secret to Rebels coach Karen Lake, who is more impressed by her star player s classroom achievements.
Steph definitely put in the extra time that was needed to succeed, Lake said. Her goal was to make it to the next level and play basketball, and she had the support system at Bowsher that guided her in the right direction to reach that goal. She realized what she needed to do and then actually did it. How can you not admire what she s overcome?
No magic wand was waved to makeStephany Johnson s transformation possible.
It was a partnership between the family, the child and the school, and that s the way it should be, said Mona McGhee, Johnson s primary tutor during high school. When you have all three working together, that s when you have a success story. Take out any of the three and it s a failure, and she doesn t make it.
The thing that has to be said about Steph is that she would just simply not quit. She never took her eye off the prize. She wouldn t let adversity beat her.
Overcoming is the best feeling in the world, Johnson said. Trying to achieve your goals is nothing until you accomplish your goals. I achieved by getting eligible for college. Accomplishing will be getting to Xavier next year, and actually being there.
You have to push yourself until you make it, and never stop pushing.
Johnson is inspired by Armintie Price, a senior All-American who led Mississippi into the NCAA tournament Elite Eight this season and was the third overall pick in the WNBA draft. Johnson s mother and Price s mother are cousins.
The role of basketball in Johnson s life cannot be underplayed.
Bethany and David Brooks remember the day when Stephany did not come home on time from her second-grade class at Glenwood Elementary.
They arrived at school in somewhat of a panic, only to find Stephany in the gym dribbling a basketball down the court along with older brother Michael and the other boys who were trying out for the fifth and sixth-grade basketball team.
Bethany walked out on the court to, in her words, snatch up her daughter, who, she felt, had no business being out there. Glenwood coach Robert Gaston intervened, assuring Bethany that it was alright, and that Stephany actually dribbled the ball better than half the boys. He talked mom into allowing Stephany to play on the boys fifth-sixth grade B team.
Johnson would play on the boys teams for four years, before finally joining girls junior high teams at St. Hyacinth and Robinson as well as in amateur youth leagues with Team Unity.
When I was in the classroom and people would read [out loud], and I couldn t read, I felt like I was a failure, Johnson said. But when I joined the team, I felt like I was equal. I felt like I was part of something. That really meant a lot to me.
Her parents saw a change in Stephany almost from the minute she began playing basketball.
She was like Hey, I can do something, Bethany said. I can play basketball. I m the only girl on this team.
That gave her confidence in herself, and I believe that made her try harder in the classroom.
I learned that there was something I could do that other kids couldn t do, Johnson said. And, if they could try to dribble and they would get better at it, then I could try to read and get better at that.
By fifth grade, Stephany had been mainstreamed into the regular curriculum, requiring some extra tutoring and speech therapy to accommodate the dyslexia.
One of the items on Bethany Brooks to-do list these days is to locate Laurie Miller, the first of several teachers who played a significant role in Stephany s progress in school. Miller, according to Mrs. Brooks, spent several years working with her daughter in elementary school. She never gave up, and encouraged Stephany to do likewise.
Ms. Miller, wherever you are, we re trying to find you, Bethany said. We want to invite you to Steph s graduation party.
In eighth grade, Stephany met McGhee for the first time. McGhee, a tutor who currently works in the STARS (Student Testing and Academic Resource Service) program based at Central Catholic, put Stephany on a path toward achieving her goal of a college scholarship. Then she refused to let the promising player stray from that path.
Our goal is to never let a kid walk away from a college scholarship, McGhee said.
Mrs. McGhee kept me on track, Johnson said. She helped me with a lot of my classes, and she was always telling me, You re not going to make it if you don t do this. She was the enforcer.
Mrs. McGhee was truly a godsend, Bethany Brooks said. Her and Mrs. Miller. The way [McGhee] goes out of her way for all of the kids, not just for Steph. Whatever she could do to help, she would do it. Without Mrs.McGhee, Steph wouldn t be where she is now.
The first time I spoke with Mrs. McGhee, we talked for one minute about basketball, David Brooks said. The other 29 minutes we talked about a curriculum conducive to getting Steph eligible for a Division I scholarship. Steph might have deviated from that program now and then, but Mrs. McGhee was always there to pull her back.
At Bowsher, among the many teachers who have helped Johnson achieve her goals, is Christine Coleman.
The Bowsher administrator has monitored her progress, academically and athletically. Mostly, she provided consistent encouragement.
Steph is a competitor all the way around on the court and in school, Coleman said.
A student that was in special ed that ends up taking pre-calculus? That s unheard of. More often than not, what I hear from her teachers is that they wish they had a whole classroom full of Stephanys.
You re looking at a kid who people didn t think would excel who s doing just that, and doing it with style. As an educator, she s the kind of kid you would hope you had in your life. She s an inspiration, a joy to have in the building.
The Bowsher student body thought enough of Johnson to elect her as the school s homecoming queen.
With her goal of reaching college one signature away, Johnson has some words of advice for other students who struggle in the classroom.
First, you have to ask yourself, Do you want to make it? Johnson said. Are you doing it because your friends are doing it, or are you doing it because you love it and want to go somewhere with it?
If you feel like you want to go somewhere with it, you can t always do what your friends do. Like my dad always says, Winners do what they have to do, losers do what they want to do.
Keep pushing yourself. Keep driving. Look for more. Don t ever feel like you re a failure like I did because, emotionally, it will screw you over. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody fails sometimes. It s all about how you overcome your failures.
Her parents echo those sentiments.
If there are kids out there that have a problem, and you find someone who is honestly willing to help you, David Brooks said, please allow that person to help you.
There is help out there and people who are willing to help you, Bethany Brooks said. Don t be embarrassed by it. If you don t let anybody help, then you can t fix it.