Behind Western's academic 'meteor,' a galaxy of supporters--and her mother

June 09, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

Her counselor calls her a renaissance woman. Her principal is reminded of a flower, once furled, now bursting into full bloom. When she graduates today from Western High School -- valedictorian, student body president, winner of an international science prize -- Melanie Smith will epitomize the very best to those who have shared her success.

There will be the teachers and principal who nurtured her, the counselor who let her talk out her problems, the scientist who helped her win money and recognition and a new sense of direction, the school bureaucrats who promoted her achievements and helped her attract a full university scholarship to study to be a doctor.

All along the way, Melanie, 17, has drawn people eager to help her live up to the potential that was so obvious.

Then, in the front row, there will be her mother: Lucy Smith, government worker, single parent, the woman behind the girl, the mother behind the meteor.

The girl is intelligent, direct, driven, a perfectionist who this year of ten came home as late as 10 p.m. from drama practice, a badminton game or a Johns Hopkins lab -- then stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning with homework.

She caught up on sleep on weekends and long rides on city buses.

She worked on projects through Christmas break, spring break and summer break.

The mother is stoic, quiet, steeped in values so entrenched that they do not need to be trumpeted. She doesn't talk much about herself; she loves to talk about her daughter.

At Lucy's office, her co-workers have kept up with every step of Melanie's progress.

The years since Melanie's birth have been shaped by Lucy's conviction that her daughter's welfare always comes first.

"That's the way it should be," says Lucy Smith. "That's the way I think it should be. It's like a sculpture maybe. You kind of form this image: a child, what a child should be. She should be educated; she should be personable; she should be . . . pretty. And you just do everything you can to make that happen."

Lucy Smith, Baltimore-born, a product of Catholic and public schools, was 19 when she gave birth to Melanie.

Lucy's own plans, including college, were put on hold. Her focus became Melanie.

Until this January, Lucy worked two jobs, off and on -- except when Melanie was in elementary school, when Lucy felt it was important to be with her daughter as much as possible.

Lucy went back to college last year, at night, but keeping up with work and Melanie was too much of a strain. She hopes to return to college when Melanie does -- this fall.

Melanie did not have to work during high school, because her mother wanted her to be free to study.

Lucy doesn't hesitate to take leave time from her state job for Melanie's doings -- a newspaper interview, a visit with a college vice president, a school event.

This year, it all bore fruit. Melanie, with a 4.0 grade point average, graduates as valedictorian of her class at Western, Baltimore's all-girl college preparatory school.

She was elected student body president, served as student representative to the school's PTA executive council and was secretary of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore.

She played on the Western badminton team, performed in the school play, tutored fellow students in math and algebra, and was an assistant in the school computer lab.

She applied to six universities or colleges and was accepted at all: Johns Hopkins, St. Mary's College, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar and the University of Rochester.

As part of a city school program to encourage women in the sciences, she conducted a lab project at Johns Hopkins University that in May won her a $5,000 scholarship at the 42nd International Science and Engineering Fair in Orlando, Fla.

Her project will be presented in an abstract this November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and become part of the international body of research attempting to find ways of preventing mental retardation.

Melanie's mentor at Hopkins, Christine Hohmann, is following through on Melanie's research, which suggested a link between brain lesions in mice -- created to mimic mental retardation in humans -- and abnormal behavior.

It was a link that had never before been explored, says Dr. Hohmann, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

"Her project was on the level that you normally hand to a graduate student," Dr. Hohmann says.

Since winning the science award, Melanie has been showered with media attention and recruited by the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she will study this fall on a full scholarship that includes an annual $1,000 stipend and a personal computer.

She has been offered a full scholarship at Johns Hopkins as well, but thought the environment there "too cold."

She already had a full scholarship at St. Mary's.

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