From ‘Pete the Cat’ to Social Justice at West Springfield High

From ‘Pete the Cat’ to Social Justice at West Springfield High

Speakers urge graduates to draw lessons from history.

An embellished graduation cap sticks out in a sea of blue.

An embellished graduation cap sticks out in a sea of blue. Photo by Abby Sacks/The Connection


The EagleBank arena displays a picture of Principal Mike Mukai’s car covered in sticky notes.


Parker Brown is “very, very excited for the years ahead.” He plans to study political science at Howard Payne University in the fall. In five years, he sees himself attending law school at the University of Virginia. Going forward, he wants to “look at life” and not be “stuck in the moment.”


“I feel older and excited to the see world,” said Andy Tran after graduating. He will be attending George Mason University next year to study computer science. His plans for after college include working at the Naval Research Lab.


Jessica Kirby will be going to the University of Mary Washington to major in journalism. She dreams of writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in five years. “I love so many things from high school, but I also know that I’m really ready to leave,” she said.


Julien Berger is “super excited” to attend the University of Georgia in the fall to study music. His post-grad plans include “whatever I can do in music,” he said. He is interested in teaching, composing and anything related to music.


Alex Marsden wants to study psychology or social work when she arrives at the College of Charleston in August. She plans to pursue either a PhD or Master’s degree in a social science, possibly at the University of Virginia. Her future plans also include “trying to find the positive stuff in every day,” she said.

The West Springfield High School commencement ceremony, which was held Tuesday, June 4 at the EagleBank Arena, had an unorthodox approach to addressing graduates.

Instead of delivering the typical Principal’s address, West Springfield Principal Mike Mukai opted to share his speaking time with the principals of the subsidiary elementary schools. Each principal, including Mukai, shared one quote from a famous scholar and another quote from the children’s book “Pete the Cat” with a similar sentiment.

This string of speeches began with Keene Mill Elementary School Principal Renee Miller reminding students that they all excel in different areas and that comparing one person's form of success to another’s is futile — for, as Einstein is quoted, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” To accompany this quote, Miller chose the “Pete the Cat and the New Guy” excerpt: “being different is really very cool… there is something everyone can do.”

Mukai closed these successive speeches by sharing his favorite quote from “Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Life.” With conviction he told the graduates, “there are no failures, just lessons.”

There was a theme of learning from past failures and mistakes, as the keynote speaker, social studies teacher Joanne Pendry, focused on the importance of social and personal history and their impacts on the students’ futures. She urged the audience to use the United States’s history as a “guidebook” and asked them to “understand the past to guide and instruct your future,” she said.

She shared her own experience of graduating from high school, which she noted was exactly 30 years ago to the day, asking if anyone could relate to high stress levels and worrying about how she would get her cap to stay on her head while not disturbing her perfectly styled hair. But, as she was getting ready, she saw on television live footage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. She remembered seeing “students on the other side of the world bravely helping each other to safety. [She] saw young people standing up definitely against an opposing force.”

From this and other moments of activism from young people, Pendry “found inspiration in the power of students.” She hoped her audience would, too. “I know what youth are capable of. And I see potential in each of you that can lead and inspire our world,” she said.

Closing her speech, she asked the graduates to thank the people around them. “Show your gratitude to the adults who have helped shape you… Equally so, show your gratitude to your peers,” she said. “You have become part of each others’ history and have helped form each other into who [they] are.”

Finally, she asked everyone to “be grateful of the history you’ve made together at West Springfield.” And, in keeping with the theme of learning and moving forward, she said, “I implore each of you to go forward and make new history.”