Toby and Taylor VanCleave sensed something was wrong immediately when their teary-eyed mother, Carla, asked to speak with them last Aug. 21.
The twins had just begun their senior year at South a week earlier, Toby an accomplished cross country runner and Taylor a state qualifier on the girls tennis team.
“I was imagining in my head what could be wrong,” Toby said. “Even after she told me, I was still surprised. I would have never imagined that.”
Carla VanCleave, a mathematics teacher at South High School for the last two decades, informed her children that she had a tumor on the optic nerve of her brain and required surgery to remove it.
Never miss a local story.
The surgery, scheduled three weeks later, was potentially life-threatening.
“I was really scared, but I didn’t want to cry in front of her because I didn’t want her to know that I was scared,” Taylor said. “I didn’t want her to worry.”
From that day forth, Carla became a foundation of strength. She developed a resolve from the diagnosis, putting on a strong face for her family, friends, co-workers, and students.
A week before the surgery, Carla was recognized during a pep assembly and was flattered by the response. When informed what their math teacher was facing, the student body rose as one and gave her a standing ovation.
“I don’t think there were very many dry eyes after that,” South track and field coach Cody Dickman said.
The VanCleave name has been synonymous with South for the last two decades, as Carla has ingrained herself in the community. When Toby was little, Carla dressed him in a tuxedo and brought him as her date to the prom.
Over the years Carla has been an active fan of South athletics, known to cheer on her Titans in a boisterous manner.
So when the students returned the favor, Carla said it was an overpowering moment.
“Goosebumps,” Carla said. “You feel so loved. I felt like everyone was behind me. It was like, ‘OK, we can do this. We are going to win!’”
Still, doctors entered the surgery cautiously optimistic. There was still a slight chance that Carla would lose her eyesight or even worse, her life.
Carla showed up the day of her surgery in her South “Game Day” shirt, prepared for the challenge that lied ahead.
“Before I went in, I said one prayer,” Carla said. “I said, ‘God, make me fearless.’ And I was.”
Complications arose during the procedure, nearly doubling the time of the surgery, but doctors performed the operation successfully and Carla emerged with staples in her head and two black eyes, but with her health.
“You feel so grateful, so lucky to be alive after something like that,” Carla said.
South High faculty brought meals three times a week, and Taylor served as the family’s communications director, alerting family, friends, and classmates of her mother’s improving conditions in the aftermath of the surgery.
Before the surgery, when Carla was at her toughest times, the thoughts of the twins never failed to rescue her from despair and inject her with hope. She had senior years to witness, a track season to catch, and a graduation party to plan.
That motivation played a part in what has turned out to be a complete recovery. Carla is back to doing what she loves, teaching math at South and being a super-mom to the family.
On Friday, she will be attendance at the season-opening Southeast Invitational at Northwest to watch Taylor compete in the throwing events and Toby run the distance races.
After being an inspiration to them for the past six months, the twins are ready to use their mom as a source of inspiration this season.
“I just want to tell everybody, ‘That’s my mom,’” Taylor said. “I’m definitely proud to call her my mom.”
CITY LEAGUE ATHLETES TO WATCH
Carroll: Ryan Rafter, throws, sr.; John Sponsel, hurdles, sr.; Ricardo Sanchez, throws, sr.; Paul Becker, distance, so.; Hunter Nance, distance, jr.
East: Calil Burnett, sprints, jr.; Jesus Le, sprints, sr.; Caleb Shuey, pole vault, sr.; David Kaufman, throws, jr.; Canien Burnett, jumps, so.
Heights: Raashid Arnold, sprints/hurdles, sr.; Kyle Martin, sprints/jumps, sr.; Dayshawn Carr, sprints, jr.
Kapaun: Devin Dempsey, sprints, sr.; Grant Wells, distance, so.; Nolan Hesse, distance, sr.; Lucas Wilson, pole vault, sr.; Gunnar Bohm, jumps, jr.; Craig Lantz, throws, sr.
North: Tristyn Villa, distance, sr.; J’Quon Williams, distance, sr.; Sean Bernard, throws, sr.; Kaelen Elliott, throws, sr.; Jeremy Brittain, distance, sr.; Ricardo Banuelos, distance, jr.; Elijah Ngicu, distance, sr.
Northwest: Deron Thompson, sprints, sr.; Andres Lleras, sprints, sr.; Cortez Carr, sprints, sr.; Mitchell Shurtz, throws, sr.; Nick Sharpes, distance, sr.; Karol Williams, sprints/jumps, jr.; Christian Sanders, hurdles, sr.
South: Kaden Griffin, hurdles/jumps, jr.; Grayson Works-Fields, throws, jr.; Tony Matsui, distance, jr.
Southeast: Jeffrey Masood, distance, sr.; Junior Joseph, throws, sr.; Brandon Fields, sprints/jumps, sr.; Charles Collins, throws, sr.; Brandon Chaney, distance, sr.; Ira Hines, sprints, so.
West: Dominic Fonseca, distance, jr.; Trevon Mitchell, throws, sr.; Marcus Malcom, sprints, jr.; Brett Dennett, throws, so.; Javon Reed, sprints/jumps, so.
Carroll: Caitlin Hawk, pole vault, jr.; Jaclyn Melillo, throws, jr.; Emily Rohleder, jumps, sr.; Erin Pascal, hurdles, jr.; Kelly Meyer, hurdles, jr.; Molly Demel, pole vault, sr.; Hannah Lyle, jumps, jr.; Elle Clouse, jumps, so.; Kylee Mernagh, jumps, so.; Abbie Scott, throws, jr.
East: Sparkle Burgess, sprints, jr.; Andrea Navarro, throws, sr.; Antonea Carson, throws, sr.; Iman Anderson, sprints, jr.; Cierra Devorce, distance, jr.; Brooke Colglazier, distance, so.; Brittan Richey, jumps, so.; Nicole Ukoefreso, jumps, so.; Krisha Parmar, throws, jr.
Heights: Chaylynn Conley, sprints, sr.; Rianne Richards, sprints, jr.; Kolby Ganther, sprints, so.; Jordan Lund, throws, sr.
Kapaun: Anna Mahoney, hurdles/sprints, so.; McKenna Sullivan, sprints, so.; Abby Louis, hurdles/sprints, sr.; Ashlyn Wuestewald, sprints, jr.; Sydney Cooksey, sprints, jr.; Cassidy Helena, jumps, sr.
North: Terache Wilson, throws, jr.; Payton Reaves, distance, so.; Daya Sargent, distance, sr.; Marissa Evans, distance, so.
Northwest: Calea Carr, throws, sr.; Karis Parker, hurdles, sr.; Kennedy Fish, pole vault, jr.; Gabriela Reyna, distance, fr.
South: Ericka Mattingly, sprints/jumps, so.; Brionna Ross, jumps, jr.; Ogechi Odunze, throws, jr.; Hannah Matsui, distance, jr.
Southeast: Breanna Eckels, jumps, so.; Patricia Joseph, jumps, so.; Cathryn Meeth, pole vault, sr.
West: Angelia Murray, sprints, jr.
AREA TRACK SCHEDULE
1 — Andover Central Invitational, Collegiate Invitational, Eisenhower Invitational, Rose Hill Invitational; 3 — Nickerson Invitational, Oxford Invitational; 4 — Andale Invitational, Clearwater Invitational, Junction City Invitational, Southeast Invitational, Winfield Invitational; 8 — Douglass Invitational, Hesston Invitational, Mulvane Invitational, Newton Invitational, Sedgwick Invitational; 10 -11 — Pre-State Challenge at WSU; 10 — Chaparral Invitational, Pretty Prairie Invitational; 11 — Augusta Invitational, Concordia Invitational, Conway Springs Invitational, Lyons Invitational, Maize Invitational, Marion Invitational, Meade Invitational; 15 — Belle Plaine Invitational, Goessel Invitational, Great Bend Invitational, Independence Invitational, Salina South Invitational, South Barber Invitational, Sterling Invitational; 17 — Valley Center Invitational; 18 — Heights Invitational, Kansas Relays; 22 — Andover Invitational, Caldwell Invitational, Halstead Invitational, Kingman Invitational, Moundridge Invitational; 25 — Abilene Invitational, Buhler Invitational, Campus Invitational, Clearwater Invitational, Halstead Invitational; 28 — Garden Plain Invitational; 29 — Hillsboro Invitational, North-East Relays.
1 — McPherson Invitational, Medicine Lodge Invitational; 2 — Arkansas City Invitational, Cheney Invitational, El Dorado Invitational, Hillsboro Invitational, Hutchinson Invitational, Topeka Seaman Invitational, Wellington Invitational; 6 — Moundridge Invitational; 8 — Circle Invitational, Hesston Invitational; 9 — Chaparral Invitational, Derby Invitational, Goddard Invitational, Salina Invitational; 15 — Central Kansas League at Halstead, Central Plains League at Bluestem, Heart of the Plains League at South Barber; 16 — Ark Valley-Chisholm Trail League Div. 1 at Maize, Div. II at Valley Center, Div. III at El Dorado, Div. IV at Collegiate, City League at Northwest, Heart of America League at Bethel, South Central Border League at Flint Hills.