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Emotional journey

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Sunday was Mother's Day. But to Matt Plante's mother, and those close to him, this was Matt's day.

Plante was one of the 200 Hays High School seniors who were honored at Sunday afternoon's 2012 graduation ceremonies at Fort Hays State University's Gross Memorial Coliseum.

In the days leading up to graduation, and even Sunday night after the guests had left and Matt was off to Project Graduation, the one word that kept coming to mind for Sheila Plante was "amazing."

It might seem more real when Matt is off to college next year, but for now, it's hard for his mom to believe her son is living a normal life of a high school senior.

That's because Matt walked across the stage and received his diploma along with his class of 2012, despite missing nearly his entire sophomore year because of illness.

After being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Matt eventually had his colon removed in March 2010 and spent a lot of time on the road making the 12-hour drive to and from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

All the while, Matt's guidance counselor at Hays High, Kathy Spicer, was keeping an eye on his status and what he could and couldn't accomplish with his coursework.

"We were trying to keep him going as best we could," Spicer said, "but my overriding concern was his health."

Once Matt made it back to school his junior year, Spicer said "he worked really hard to get caught up."

The one thing Spicer said she noticed that probably kept Matt going despite several setbacks in his recovery was "his positive attitude."

"He stayed upbeat the entire time," she said.

Matt's mom also gives a lot of credit to Spicer for keeping them informed of what he needed to do to keep on track academically.

"She figured it out what Matt all had to do, which classes he could drop and which ones he absolutely had to have," Sheila said. "I thought, 'There's no way he's going to be able to catch up.' But (Spicer) made sure he did. She was amazing."

Sunday's speaker, Ron Leikam, addressed the graduates by saying, "This moment is about hellos and good-byes, beginnings and endings and the emotions and events that accumulated in between."

There were a lot of emotions for the Plantes during Matt's high school career as he battled his illness with medication before his surgery, then had to deal with numerous setbacks afterwards.

"As a parent, watching your child have to go through this ... " Sheila said, her voice trailing off. "A lot of times, he slept, just to get through the pain."

Sheila, who took classes to learn how to care for her son, said she almost gets more emotional now that Matt's ordeal is over than when they were going through it all.

"Now, I still cry about everything," she said. "I cried when I sent out his graduation invitations. I cry because his (graduation) gown is hanging in my bedroom."

Spicer arranged for a tutor to go to Matt's house during his illness and got him enrolled in some of his core classes at the local school district's Learning Center, from which he could take classes online.

Now that it's behind him, Matt holds no ill will toward anything -- except for maybe certain foods.

"I ate a lot of pudding and shakes and Jell-O," he said, smiling as he added. "I hate Jell-O now."

Nearly 75 percent of the graduating class of 2012 received some type of scholarship to continue their education next year.

Leikam, an HHS social studies teacher chosen by the senior class as its commencement speaker, told the seniors to beware "the seniors of May are the freshmen of August."

That doesn't bother Sheila and Matt Plante. In fact, they are looking forward to August, when Matt will begin classes at Fort Hays.

"I'm looking forward to it," Matt said.

His mom's response was even shorter. Shaking her head, all she could say was, "Amazing."

Graduation notes

This year's graduating class included five sets of twins, eight students who finished their high school careers with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages and approximately a dozen others who graduated summa cum laude (3.90 or higher GPA).

The sets of twins that received diplomas at Sunday's 2012 Hays High School graduation were: Candra and Cassandra Armbruster, Kara and Korey Hunziker, Blake and Bryce McClung, Aubrey and Joshua McGinnis and Tannor and Taylor Wiesner.

Eight students who completed their high school careers with perfect grade-point averages were: Xan Faber, Tandra Johnson, Alexyss Leiker, Luke Madden, Maryam Ogunbiyi, Jillian Taylor, Madeline Trout and Allison Vahling.