Community is key for W.T. Clarke High School's top two students

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Becoming valedictorian was about more than grades for Jonathan Melkun. It was about topping his class at W.T. Clarke High School while learning to be a father figure to his little brother.

Melkun shared his story at the East Meadow PTA Council’s Founders Day event in March, and thanked everyone in the room for supporting him. “To me, what makes a group of people into a community is helping each other in our time of need,” he said.

Melkun’s time of need began in his childhood, when his father would come home from work drunk, and start fighting with his mother. “It would get scary and I’d block it out,” Melkun said. “You know, playing video games, listening to music.”

He loved his father, he said, describing him as good-natured and a hard worker who ran the family soda-delivery business. But when he started drinking, “It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Melkun said.

On Christmas 2012, Melkun’s father left the family, and he didn’t see him again until the following Easter. They had a picnic at a local park, where Melkun’s parents hid Easter eggs for Jonathan and his brothers to find. “There was no fighting, no yelling,” he recalled. “We just had a great time.”

That’s the last memory he has of his father, who took his own life two days later.

“It was great to, at least, end on a good note,” Melkun said. “The last time I saw him, he had this big smile on his face.” Melkun said that internalizing the trauma was “socially stunting,” because he was afraid to make friends and trust others. The family also relied on his father’s business for financial stability, which took a hit after his death.

Melkun said that he and his brother Justin, now 20, had to step up and help their mother take care of them and their little brother Ryan, 11. For the past two summers, Melkun has worked at Mama Gina’s in North Bellmore, sometimes taking on 72-hour shifts, to make enough money to buy groceries.

During the school year, he has balanced numerous extracurricular activities and leadership positions. He was president of the English Honor Society, secretary of the Math Honor Society and a member of the science, social studies and Tri-M honor societies. He was a member of the DECA business club, the Model U.N., Mathletes and the Improv Club, and founded the school’s Smash Club, which hosted Super Smash Brothers video game tournaments.

Melkun was also captain of the track team, active in the school’s Science Research Program and played clarinet in both the wind ensemble and pit orchestra.

In March, his life took another turn when his mother was ill and hospitalized for nine days. He put his after-school life on hold to visit her and to cook dinner for himself and Ryan each night.

“I had to take on a lot more responsibilities than the average high schooler because my circumstances are not average,” Melkun said. “And I think I succeeded with flying colors.”

He was recently accepted by Harvard University, which he calls one of his proudest achievements. He will attend Princeton, however, where he received a full scholarship and plans to study mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“I’m definitely thankful for the people who helped me,” Melkun said, adding that community members rallied behind him and his family after his speech at Founders Day. They were among this year’s beneficiaries of the W.T. Clarke Run with the Rams 5K, which raises money each year for locals in need.

Melkun’s adversity taught him to be “like a train engine and just keep chugging forward,” he said. “Anything that comes my way, I know I can handle, because I’ve handled everything up to this point.”

A community far from home

Like Melkun, Clarke Salutatorian Joel Mathew also found a community in East Meadow that he credits with supporting him through hardship and helping him succeed.

Mathew was born in India, where he lived for less than a year before his family moved to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. He immigrated to America at age 6, because neither his parents nor he were citizens of the UAE, and his parents saw more opportunity here.

“It was tough at first,” Mathew said. “Before I came here, I was happy with what I had in Dubai. It was all I wanted in the world.”

His first memory of America is of seeing his extended family waiting for him at the airport, and receiving a winter jacket as a gift from his uncle. “It was so important to me, because I didn’t have much at the time,” he said.

His family lived in an apartment in Islip, where he often stayed home alone while both of his parents worked. When he was in second grade, Joel’s father had to leave his job to stay home and take care of his newborn little sister. Eventually, however, his parents couldn’t afford to raise her in America, and she grew up with Mathew’s family in India.

“I could see how their sacrifice gave me what I had,” Joel said of his parents. They moved to East Meadow when he was in sixth grade and, he said, it was the first time he lived in a house.

At Clarke, Mathew was a member of the English, science, social studies, math and Spanish national honor societies, the DECA business club, Mathletes and the Red Cross Club, and founded the school’s Quiz Bowl Club, which qualified for the National Quiz Bowl competition this year.

Outside school, he was active in the Youth League of St. Mary’s Malan Kara Orthodox Church, in Sayville, and took first place represented his church in a speech competition, at which he spoke Malayalam, his native language.

He plans on studying biology and computer science at Stony Brook University, and looks forward to new experiences and meeting people from other cultures.

East Meadow is also a lot more diverse than Islip, Mathew said, adding that he felt more comfortable here than he did at his predominantly white school in Islip. “It taught me to be cognizant of different cultures and people,” he said. “Since then, the school, the community, all the friends I’ve made here have really helped me succeed.”