Andrew Dys

Rock Hill teen graduates 6th in Northwestern class – despite being blind

Ryan Noblett, a blind student graduating Saturday from Northwestern High School, skydiving.
Ryan Noblett, a blind student graduating Saturday from Northwestern High School, skydiving. Courtesy of Anna Chacknes

When 413 Northwestern High School students walk across the stage at Winthrop Coliseum Saturday morning to receive diplomas, all will look up into the arena stands to find family.

All except the one who ranked sixth in his class, who has taken seven advanced placement courses as he prepares to attend Liberty University, who has been a singer with the renowned Northwestern Troubadours chorus – all the while going through dialysis treatments three times a week for kidney failure.

Ryan Noblett will not see his parents, Anna Chacknes and Timothy Noblett, nor his two brothers. He will not see anybody else in that 6,000 seat stadium.

Ryan is blind.

He has never seen a test, or a calculus formula, or a word in a book. Yet only five students in Northwestern’s class of 2015 had a grade-point average better than his 4.87.

“Just because I am blind doesn’t mean I can’t compete with the best,” Ryan said.

Blind Northwestern student graduates near top of class

Ryan has a genetic blindness that he has dealt with all his life, and that same genetic problem is likely the culprit for the kidney failure.

He performed his school work in braille and through audio and screen reader computer programs.

He did have Lori Finnerty, a special teacher trained to work with visually impaired students, who has been with him for years – but the only “special” classes Ryan has been in are the ones that only the very best students take.

He even plays piano. And, twice, he has jumped out of airplanes. On purpose.

“I skydive,” Ryan said. “Not bad for a blind guy.”

Nobody makes more jokes or cracks wiser about being blind than Ryan himself.

“I make the best blind jokes,” he said.

He calls himself a free spirit.

His mother said Ryan has great confidence in himself, dealing with his blindness with great aplomb and ease.

“Ryan is strong, he knows who he is, where he will go in his life,” Chacknes said. “He is very independent. Too much so, sometimes.”

No, Ryan is not perfect.

“He needs to floss better,” said his mother, the dentist.

Unlike most teens, though, Ryan has never driven a car, and he never will. He has never played sports. He has had bumps in the medical road and bumps on his head where people, even with good intentions, have led him into poles and walls.

But he looks at what he has done and will do – not at what he can’t or won’t do.

Despite missing so much class for dialysis, Ryan still has received college credit for seven advanced placement high school classes. He took the same tests, covered the same work.

“I fully expect to work in signals intelligence for the NSA (National Security Agency) one day in special intelligence,” he said, “or be a corporate lawyer specializing in corporate contract law.

“Or both.”

Ryan was such a great student that he had the pick of some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, but he chose Liberty University because he likes the place, the people, the caring environment – and it offers a major in strategic intelligence, complete with a former CIA agent in charge.

“I am really good at computers,” he said.

But before starting college and becoming a real-life Daredevil – the blind superhero from Marvel from comics and movies – Ryan has to get a kidney transplant. His mother is donating one of her kidneys after tests showed she is a match. The surgery likely will be in July, with Ryan needing months of recovery.

College won’t start for Ryan until at least January.

“As a mother, I would do anything for my son,” Chacknes said, “and a kidney is part of being a mom.”

On Saturday morning, when the Northwestern class of 2015 receives diplomas, every kid will be special. Every child will have accomplished something great. Every family will be proud.

But only one student will need an escort up the steps and across the stage. Only one will tap the stage with what he calls his “blind-guy cane.”

Ryan Noblett will get his diploma and take another leap into life – a life he so far has conquered despite never seeing his own smile in the mirror.

He allows no naysayers. He accepts no dismissals.

Ryan is asked what he tells people who say he can’t do something, and what he will tell them in the future.

His smile is huge. It’s cunning – gracious and devilish all at once.

“I would tell them to get lost.”

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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