Ballard High valedictorian tackled tough schoolwork and cancer treatment
Mikael Perla, who has dealt with cancer since the start of his high-school career, will graduate from Ballard High School on Monday as valedictorian.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mikael Perla can't believe he'll walk at Ballard High School's graduation Monday — in part because there was a very real possibility he wouldn't live to see it happen at all.
Perla was diagnosed with leukemia midway through his freshman year, and for two years did homework between aggressive radiation treatments and chemotherapy that often kept him at the hospital or home from school.
The steroids he was prescribed caused diabetes, a problem that made him weak until the end of his junior year, when it was diagnosed. Treatments to prevent regression of his cancer continued until last month.
When the leukemia was first discovered, school officials told Perla and his family he could take a year off to focus on his health. Perla wouldn't have it. He'd made a few friends in biotech courses.
"Also, I didn't want to be the weird kid that was held back," he said.
Despite it all, he not only will graduate on Monday but will be recognized as valedictorian.
"He has a competitive nature," said Dewey Moody, Perla's chemistry teacher. "He wanted to be the best even with the burden he was carrying."
Don't mistake Perla's persistence for arrogance. He credits his top grades to hard work and teachers who tutored him.
He doesn't mention that he practically taught himself the language and math of chemistry from textbooks in bed, that he turned in every homework assignment, that he came in after school to do labs when he would be less likely to catch germs from classmates, reluctantly accepting his mom as his lab partner.
Sally Perla — not her son — points out how he'd apply school lessons to his own illness.
"He would always want the doctors to tell him where is this (treatment) interrupting the cell: in the mitosis or meiosis stage?" Sally Perla said. "Why did the steroids cause diabetes? He'd look it up."
Mikael Perla will attend the University of Washington in the fall after completing a summer program in engineering. He's considering a career in medicine.
Friends and family say Perla has always been more mature than most of his peers, but that hasn't made the transition between high school and adulthood any easier for him.
For him, graduation is a particularly bittersweet accomplishment, explains Arden Carmody, Perla's prom date this year.
"Mikael feels way more nostalgic about leaving, since he says he hasn't really had a high-school experience," she said.
When he was in the hospital, classmates joked he was missing all the fun and sent him a photo of them picking up trash. He kept it. One girl sent him a bouquet made of cookies that he couldn't eat. His mom froze it.
When he returned to school part time his sophomore year, he didn't have hair, and many classmates wouldn't sit next to him. They didn't know what to say, his mother speculates, or they didn't want to risk getting him sick when he was so weak.
He did keep in touch with some friends, playing "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" and other games online from his Xbox. One guy he knew since kindergarten visited often after getting his driver's license.
Perla said his first real year of high school was his third year. His hair grew back, and he was attending a full schedule of classes as he continued lighter treatments.
"I finally got to see him come out of his shell," said Moody, the chemistry teacher.
"I'd see him socializing in class, and, sure enough, he winds up going to the prom with a girl from his AP class."
The dry wit and sharp mind that helped Perla become valedictorian are part of why Jason Mills became friends with Perla in the lunchroom as freshmen.
"We end up arguing a lot about history and economics," Mills said. "He gets this half-smirk on his face whenever we get into it."
Mills likes debating Perla because he's skeptical and inquisitive but not a pessimist.
"He has a firm sense of reality that gives him kind of a cynical air, but he's an optimist in the sense that he won't let anything stop him," Mills said. "He goes and gets it."
Jayme Fraser: 206-464-2201 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @jaymekfraser