A brilliant mind blossoms in rocky soil of adversity

April 24, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

On a fine spring weekend, college student Roxanne Smith is hunched over her computer in the Calverton, a residence for homeless women, developing notions about St. Anselm, "this little guy from the 11th century" with a big ontological argument.

Ontological argument?

Roxanne leans forward, eyes shining, itching to introduce it. It is an argument for the existence of God that starts with the notion that God is "something than which nothing greater can be conceived." It's all uphill from there.

"This is the kind of thing I love about philosophy, the mental gymnastics," she says. "It's like when a baseball player says 'I'm being paid to play a kid's game,' I'm being paid to have fun."

After a four-year scholarship, Ms. Smith will graduate next month from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland with a double major -- in liberal arts and communications -- and a 4.0 average in liberal arts. Accepted for graduate studies at Harvard, Yale, American and Drew universities, she will attend the University of Chicago's School of Divinity with a fellowship worth $128,000 to study philosophy of religion.

These days, people who have never even met Roxanne Smith are talking about her. Their wonder concerns not only her success but how she managed to achieve it. Roxanne did not come from a family where academic skills were stressed. She did not reach college with the blessings of a long line of devoted teachers.

Roxanne came to college from a homeless shelter and from the kind of hardship that can break a person -- or make her very philosophical.

Just five years ago, she was too afraid of the world to venture outdoors. When acute anxiety and depression forced her into Springfield Hospital Center in 1989, psychiatrists said her greatest trouble was her relationship with her mother. She was ++ released to Marian House, a transitional housing program for homeless women, with the understanding she wouldn't return to her mother's home in Takoma Park.

At 28, Roxanne was suddenly homeless. She had no high school diploma. She had never lived away from home. She had never held a job. She had no money. She was raw from emotional wounds and plagued by physical ailments. She regarded

outsiders with a fear bred from a childhood that was booby-trapped by her mother's mental illness.

But Roxanne was also brilliant, tough and ready to create a life for herself.

At 32, Ms. Smith is a strong, solid pillar of a woman with a deep, rich voice. She suffers from aggressive arthritis -- her right hand bears scars from surgery to replace and fuse joints -- and psoriasis, a chronic skin disease exacerbated by stress.

Passion for knowledge

She has a gift for talk -- "In a previous life, I must have kissed the Blarney Stone" -- and a passion for soaking up knowledge, from the cosmic to the minute. Last year, she won a spot in the national pool of finalists to appear on the "Jeopardy" quiz show.

The immediate story of her transformation begins at Marian House, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

It was there, in January 1990, that she met Sister Kathleen Feeley, who was then president of the college. The two women fell easily into a six-hour "talk-a-thon," Roxanne unaware that this volunteer possessed the power to transform her life.

That conversation, which ranged over history, current events, civil rights and literature, persuaded Sister Kathleen to offer Roxanne a four-year scholarship to college. The nun remembers being surprised by the range of their discussion, an anomaly in a place where talk usually concerns personal problems.

"Roxanne had the most lively interest in life," says Sister Kathleen. "I didn't know a thing about her, but every topic I introduced, she could speak about. "One time she described something as a Machiavellian tactic. I said, 'Do you know Machiavelli?' And she said, 'Well, I've never read "The Prince," but I know the principles he expounded.'

"She told me her grandmother had taught her to read when she was 4 years old. That she would sit on her grandmother's lap to read the Bible and that when her grandmother's eyes got too bad, she could read the Bible to her.

"And I thought, 'This is an unusual one.' "

Her mother's illness

Roxanne Celeste Smith was born May 17, 1961, in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington. At the time, her mother Florence was a patient there, undergoing treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

The fifth of six children, Roxanne met her mother when she was 4 1/2 years old. Until then, she was raised by her maternal grandparents, Robert and Florence Gantt at "what amounted to a small farm" in Glendale, Md. She remembers flourishing in a world of affectionate adults who called her "Annie."

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