Difference Maker

For Baltimore's Malik Caldwell and some 200 other students, a Carson Scholarship could change everything.

April 26, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

The letter held great news, the news he'd been waiting for, the kind that could change his life. But Malik Caldwell didn't even know it had arrived. It lay, unopened, on a dresser right in his own house, buried in a stack of junk mail that deepened as the days went by - a pile of stuff as useless as the world he wanted to leave behind.

Malik Caldwell, 18, a senior at Harbor City High, almost didn't find out he was a Carson Scholar, one of more than 200 to be honored tomorrow at a Martin's West ceremony, with one of the most prestigious awards available to students in the Baltimore public school system.

It wouldn't be a shock if he'd missed his honor. Growing up a city boy, you have fun, he says, but you have to deal with a lot of trash. If you're lucky, you see that trash for what it is and make the right choices. If you're not, you'll end up on the heap yourself.

Malik, a 4.0 student for the past two years, nearly wound up there.

To be fair, as a kid, he didn't have much help. He loved his Pops, but the man wasn't around enough to give him a lot of direction. Moms worked two jobs, sometimes three, but she was sick pretty often and sometimes couldn't pay the bills. One year, he remembers, the power was off for nine months. They had to light candles every night, run a cord to the neighbor's house to keep the heat on.

It all added up to one feeling. If you didn't have anything, you couldn't be anything. Malik Caldwell didn't really matter.

Not that he saw it that way. Boys turn their sorrow to anger. One of his main guides, Tupac Shakur, seemed to understand. "Get your hate up with your weight," the rapper said.

Malik, a little guy, took that to heart. He banged weights, he ran, he fought when he had to. A kid dissed him in the street one day, and Malik had to beat him up. When the kid's two friends arrived, he polished them off, too. At 13, he hit a hot streak in a dice game and won $1,000 from a guy twice his age. Had to fight the man to take it home.

School? Just something to get through. When the kid up front raised his hand, Malik knew the answers, too; he just didn't choose to show it. He wasn't kissing anyone's behind. Hate with the weight.

Then there was the block. To Malik and his buddies, that was the world. They vied for money, turf, respect. Did it matter that so few seemed to get out? That 10 went to jail? That eight ended up in their graves? Not really. That guy across the street, three years older, with the Lexus, the 22-inch rims, the system in the back - if he could get all that, Malik could, too.

One day in ninth grade, Malik just couldn't help himself. His English teacher was obese. He'd never said a thing, not one word. But that day, somebody called her on it. He laughed so hard his sides hurt. Did she have to make such a big thing of it? Just like a fool teacher to go to the principal.

They sent him home with a note. He couldn't come back to Northwestern High until his mother came in to work things out.

It didn't worry him much. She was tough, too. But when he got home that day, he found out he wasn't as bad as he thought.

When Malik looks back, he thinks maybe he shares something with the man they named the program for, Benjamin Carson, M.D. He's the children's neurosurgeon who separated those Siamese twins years ago. The man with the gifted hands.

Everybody says he's humble. Grew up poor in Detroit. Studied hard. Now that he's on top, he tries to help others get where he is. Probably looks back and thinks about all those people who took the time to help him all along, saying those righteous things.

When Malik thinks about it, he sees it wasn't all rage and pride and wasted time. There were those folks who told him the right things once in a while. Those few teachers who didn't have that attitude. The old folks, the ones whose bags he'd carry sometimes, who told him stories and said, "You're not like other kids." His big brother, Michael Campbell, who had a job and his own place. And Moms.

He stressed her out. And sure, she'd be happier if only he'd stay at those family barbecues for more than five minutes. But she was a survivor. Always kept it together. It never entered his mind that he, of all people, could rock her world.

He didn't see it coming when he handed her the note. The way she trembled and started to cry. The way his rock, Cynthia Campbell, broke down.

She tried to speak between her sobs. She said she was scared. She said he never listened. She said if he didn't start to listen right now, he'd never finish school, he'd never get out of the neighborhood, he'd end up in jail, he'd be dead by 18.

Death, he'd seen. This he couldn't handle. He held her, hugged her, kissed her on the cheeks again and again. Anything to make her stop. And now her words rang in his ears, the ones she said to him nearly every day, every time he scowled or sulked or brought his troubles home.

"That's not you, Malik," she'd say. "That's not you."

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