It’s safe to say the choir students at Elkhorn Area High School are extroverted.
Most of Matthew Remus’ students fit that description. It makes sense: Choir singers showcase their voices in front of an audience while most people limit singing to the shower or an empty car.
But that’s not Michael Markham.
“I mean, I was. I was always the quiet person,” he said with a sudden burst of emphasis after pausing for a few seconds at his Sugar Creek home.
“Quiet” is a word that those who know Michael often use to describe him.
But the graduating Elkhorn senior, who opens up once you get to know him, found outlets to develop his confidence. He has been in choir and has participated in school musicals for four years.
Michael reaching graduation Thursday was never certain for his mom, Summer. This is mostly because Michael was born six weeks early with a Grade 2 hemorrhage and hydrocephalus (water in the brain that caused his head to grow rapidly, Summer explained). He later struggled with epilepsy, too.
And yet, Michael still found his voice—in a literal and figurative sense, and in a way all growing teenagers (in theory) should and in the way that was best for Michael.
“Sometimes when you just see him, he comes off as kind of even stoic,” said Brian Schopf, a counselor at Elkhorn Area High School. “But that’s why I always just laugh when I see him on stage and I think, ‘God! Man, you would not think that.’
“Somebody who doesn’t know that (Michael’s) history wouldn’t appreciate that as much as I do.”
That history started in Germany, where the family was stationed for part of Michael’s father’s service in the U.S. Army.
When German doctors saw Michael’s head growing about a centimeter per day, they recommended surgery, Summer said, so the family was medevacked to the United States.
By “some miracle,” however, Michael started to absorb the bleed, which lessened the water pressure and made surgery unnecessary.
Still, Summer said, Michael was developmentally delayed until he was about 2 years old. Then, years later, came the epilepsy diagnosis.
How would he do in school? Would Michael be able to drive?
While confused about and uncertain of his future—some doctors warned of “very large developmental challenges”—Michael’s mom was scared yet thankful. Her son was going to survive. And eventually drive, too.
Michael was too young to remember most of that, but he does recall the doctor visits and being hooked up to “all the wires.”
When he started high school, Michael struggled academically. His grades were lower in his freshman and sophomore years, and it was tough to keep pushing forward. He said he joined school musicals in ensemble roles partly because he didn’t have the confidence to go out for bigger parts.
But in his junior and senior years, his grades improved. He sought more involved roles in the performances. He was intentionally stepping out of his shell and “just taking charge and making friends,” he said.
He enjoyed being in Spanish class because it came easy to him. Choir was also another favorite.
Schopf and Remus, who have known Michael throughout high school, speak highly of him.
To Schopf, the soon-to-be graduate is a “sincere, genuine kid” who is “eternally optimistic” and made “incredible gains” academically.
Remus remembered early on when Michael struck him “as the type of kid that I really wanted to keep involved in the choir program.” Remus encouraged Michael to audition for the upper-level group.
Remus saw him as reliable and hardworking. Still, back then, he didn’t picture him as a leader.
But Remus was surprised to see Michael step into that role. Michael also helped his teacher with emailing students, organizing music and assisting with the concert programs.
Michael is also involved at Sugar Creek Lutheran Church, where he works on charitable projects with the women he warmly calls his “church grandmas.”
His parents’ divorce was challenging, but Summer said he has stepped up and become a better big brother to Mason, 13, and Madison, soon to be 11.
Schopf also pointed to Michael’s involvement with Badger Boys State and his second-degree black belt in the mixed martial art of Kimudo, which incorporates judo, hapkido, aikido, taekwondo and others.
The quiet boy expanded his high school experience.
“He’s obviously shown himself very reliable,” Remus said. “Very, you know, worthwhile.”
His education will continue. Michael said he will attend UW-Whitewater to study accounting, international business and Spanish.
The boy whose medical history held him back is going to graduate Thursday with honors.
When Michael was little, Summer said she didn’t know if mainstream education could happen. Then her son struggled with middle school and the first two years of high school.
“There were times when I didn’t know what else to do to help him find that motivation for himself,” she said, tearing up. “So now to graduate with an honor and a GPA that looks nice and to be accepted into college and to have goals is just amazing.
“I’m very proud of him.”
The senior year show—Michael’s favorite—was “Mary Poppins.” He played the character Northbrook.
His line in the show was his quotation in the yearbook: “Do good, and may you have good luck.”
“That’s the one (line) that was most memorable,” he said. “But it was conversation between the children and just teaching them a lesson of value and worth.”
It was like a lesson in finding their voice.