Valedictorian profile: A class clown with smarts
During a recent Medford School Board meeting in which the district’s valedictorians were honored, North Medford High School senior Caleb Yonker was the last of the bunch to be called, given where his surname stands in the alphabet.
But that did not mean the moment was unremarkable. When Principal Gregg O’Mara called his name, Yonker — voted “charmingly charismatic” by teachers and “class clown” by students — stepped up to the mic with swagger.
“Good evening, Board of Directors. I will be attending Grand Canyon University,” he said in a jovial manner with a look of pride in his eyes.
Yonker stepped away from the mic before stretching his neck out, realizing he forgot to tell them he was majoring in business. But it didn’t matter that the valedictorian’s moment hadn’t gone as flawlessly as the others — O’Mara and the rest of the room beamed for the kid in a purple sweatshirt with thick, brown, curly hair.
Yonker, 18, is one of North Medford High School’s 15 valedictorians from the class of 2022.
“I just say, ‘I worked for this. It took a lot, and I’m just going to wear it proudly,’” Yonker said in an interview from his home.
The North Medford senior, who started his 4.0 streak even before high school, just barely attained the distinguished title.
He partly blamed a “B” in physics for the “weird” year involving virtual learning during the pandemic. The grade was something Yonker thought could not be reversed.
“I was stressed about that for a long time,” he said.
However, district policy says students can retake courses to earn a higher grade, said Yonker’s counselor, Cesar Flores. It was Flores who huddled with the North Medford senior to help him achieve the “A” he needed.
“I said, ‘Did you ever talk to the teacher?’ He said, ‘No, I did not.’ So, I said, ‘It wouldn’t hurt to talk to that teacher. Make this a learning experience. (Ask yourself), ‘What could I do better?’” Flores said. “It felt like he needed to get that off his chest.”
The high school counselor could not recall a time when a student repeated a class to replace a passing grade, not a failing one.
“This is a really unusual case,” Flores said.
Yonker learned the effort to retake physics paid off when he spoke with Jeri Childress, the high school’s Tornado Future Center Office assistant.
“She said, ‘You did it; you’re going to be a valedictorian,’” Yonker recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, crazy.’ It was surreal.”
“What we try to teach is to never give up,” Flores said. “Caleb was persistent, willing to repeat this whole class over again and prove himself.”
Yonker was born and raised in Medford and always attended public schools. He went to Lone Pine Elementary and Hedrick Middle School before entering North Medford High School.
His only complaint about his last four years may be North Medford’s unusual layout, but other than that, Yonker has made plenty of friends and says the teachers are fun.
“They let me mess around a lot in class,” Yonker said. “I’m very loud; I talk a lot. Some teachers like it; some teachers (are) not very fond of it.”
Asked to elaborate, Yonker admitted he can be a “distractor” in class discussions.
“There’s a lot of examples. I can just take the class in any direction,” he said. “It just happens. It’s just natural ... my vibe is top-tier.”
Asked to describe his first impressions of Yonker, Flores said the first word that came to his mind was “charismatic” — and the high school counselor wasn’t even aware his student had won an award for it, which officials say has been renamed “The Caleb Yonker Award.”
But that charisma had its downsides for the North Medford valedictorian, Flores said.
“Part of that process of becoming that person — especially a person with such charisma — is not adaptable to every environment,” Flores said. “But I think he is the type of kid that if it doesn’t work in a certain place, he’s going to adapt quickly. That’s part of the trial and error. He is a young man who is still learning.”
Ever exuding positivity, Yonker was quick to point out that “class clown” doesn’t have to carry negative connotations.
“The class clown is usually someone who doesn’t get good grades, and they probably don’t show up to school much,” he said. “I’m probably a very different class clown than every other class clown — I get good grades and do my thing.”
Describing charisma, Yonker said he doesn’t like to think he’s using his personality for his own personal gain.
“Charisma, to me, is being outgoing to everyone and being kind to everyone,” Yonker said. “I can make anyone smile, and if I see someone having a bad day, I always try to make them smile.”
Yonker also is a hard worker. “I also can answer a couple questions here and there,” he said. Math and science are his favorite subjects.
Flores assigned Yonker to tutor students not only for his smarts, but his charisma. One of his teachers, Katie D'Errico, spoke positively about the North Medford valedictorian she’s known for four years.
“He is just really awesome to be around. He always has a smile on his face. I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anybody,” D’Errico said. “It’s going to be hard not having him.”
From the time Yonker achieved a perfect grade point average in eighth grade, he was determined to keep his transcript perfect.
“Once I got (a 4.0) the first time, it just kept me going. I already got it; I’m going to keep doing it,” Yonker said. “I just really want to be successful.”
Yonker plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz.
Choosing to major in business, Yonker said he believes his focus will be finance and economics. He is not sure how he will use his degree.
“(I want to) see where life takes me,” Yonker said.
Whatever happens, the North Medford valedictorian knows what his definition of “success” at GCU is.
“Success, to me, is getting my degree and graduating with the least amount of college debt possible,” Yonker said. “The less that I have, the more successful I’ll feel.”
D'Errico said she knows Yonker will be successful not only for his compassion for others, but his “ability to rally a group.”
“To get other people involved in things — beyond (a) team player,” she said. “You just instantly feel better when he’s around ... and if he takes that with him when he goes on, his future is limitless.”
Aside from earning his degree and graduating without a lot of debt, Yonker makes no bones about his other goal: to retire at age 30.
“Yes, sir — it will happen,” Yonker said. “I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m going to get there.”
He wants to leave behind work at a young age just to “have a nice, chill life.”
But until the day he can retire, Yonker has to finish his coursework at North before walking across the stage at graduation.
“The thing I like to say to younger kids is, ‘Make the most of every opportunity you’ve been given.’ It happens fast — very fast,” Yonker said.
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.