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


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.

"I'm very proud of her," says Lucy Smith, with characteristic understatement, as she sits at her kitchen table in her modest row house in Hoes' Heights. "She's in her rightful place. She's always worked hard."

Melanie looks at her skeptically across the table, then stands up to grab a box of tissue.

She sits down, pretends to blow her nose loudly and says in a high-pitched voice, "That's my baby. . . . That's my little girl."

7+ Mother and daughter laugh uproariously.


It is the last day of school for seniors, and the unseasonable heat the sun outside Western High school's walls contrasts sharply with the deserted cool of the wide, antiseptic-smelling corridors within.

In the school office, Lucy Smith sits on a chair, a net bag full of her daughter's belongings in her lap, waiting for Melanie to wrap up last-minute errands and leave for an interview with a prospective college.

Lucy was going to take the day off work anyway, she says.

"We were going to do something together," she says. "We haven't done anything together for a while. She's just had so many things.

"Since she was a little girl, she just liked to do a lot of things," Lucy says. "I'm not outgoing. I'm the shy type. She was always outgoing."

When Melanie was little, Lucy would pick her up from the sitter, pick up a newspaper and go home to settle down at the kitchen table.

She would read stories to Melanie, then 4 or 5 years old, and ask her to try to find the words in the paper. That's how Melanie learned to read.

When Melanie was 7 or 8, Lucy bought her a set of encyclopedias. The little girl was so excited she cut her finger trying to unwrap them.

"You know how kids will ask you why is this this way?," says Lucy. "Instead of trying to explain it to her, we'd look it up together. And it got to where I'd just say, 'Why don't you go look it up?' "

Down the hall, Melanie is sitting in her counselor's office while the counselor, Doris Burke, submits to a newspaper interview. The girl is furiously writing an English paper on James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," a paper that is due today.

The book is balanced on one stiff arm with two bandaged fingers. Melanie's mice bit her during a television shoot for a feature on her science prize and she had to have a tetanus shot -- the reason she is rushing to finish the paper. "Killer mice," Melanie calls them.

Ms. Burke is remembering some of the problems that have brought Melanie to the cramped, buff-colored office so many times over the past four years, "Your feeling that you would be letting down your parent, and if you'd gotten a 97 you should have gotten a 98. . . . Your feeling that teachers expected a great deal of you."

Melanie explains: "I'm a perfectionist, and most of the time when I'm in here, it's because practicality rubs against perfection. I have a hard time dealing with the fact that 100 percent all of the time just can't be done -- or even some of the time."

The perfectionism and the drive are all Melanie, as much a part of her makeup as her aptitude for math.

Though the story of her success is in part a story of opportunity offered and exploited, an example of public schools at their best, her success starts with who she is -- and the home she has grown up in.

Though she spent middle school and high school as a latchkey child, her mother has always been there. "I try to keep up with her," says Lucy.

"If you see her, you usually see me."

Along the way, Lucy has made a point of minimizing what others would view as handicaps. "I never wanted her to grow up with those -- I call them crutches," she says. "You know, 'I was from a broken home and I couldn't do so and so and so.' "

But the hardships were there. Growing up, Melanie recalls, "When we'd fill out stuff, for father, I'd put NA . . . 'Not Applicable.' "

Melanie met her father when she was in 10th grade. He came over to the house a few times. She has little to say about the experience. "I was better off with my mother," she says somberly.

L Eventually, she decided she didn't want to see him any more.

School and the activities associated with it have been Melanie's full-time vocation. A hefty scrapbook chronicles her scholarly career.

She has mapped out her life: medical school, a few years working as a doctor "in the community," then establishing her private practice.

The first reality check came this year. Melanie wanted to go to school at Wellesley College, an exclusive private school. Lucy fTC agreed to try. They submitted the financial aid forms. When Lucy's share proved to be too high -- $4,000 a year of the $24,000 tuition, room and board -- they rode the train up to Massachusetts together to talk to financial aid officers at the school.

Melanie's supporters at Johns Hopkins also intervened -- with the result that the financial aid package was modified. But it wasn't enough.

Talking about the decision to stay in Maryland, Melanie looks as though she is about to cry. She is upbeat about attending the University of Maryland Baltimore County but says determinedly that she plans to attend an Ivy League medical school.

"I proved that I could get into an Ivy League school by applying," she says. "I know I can do it, and I know that it would help me a lot when I'm working and getting my practice together."

Mother and daughter talk about the costs of medical school -- about $40,000 and rising.

"We're gonna get through," says Lucy.

Melanie smiles at her. "My mother, she's going to work for me when I get my practice."

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