ANNAPOLIS – Seven years ago, a fire left Sahlah Lawson and her family homeless after their landlord deliberately set the place on fire to collect insurance payments.
They spent a few days in a shelter, about 10 weeks in a hotel, and four months in a one-room apartment above a shop in Baltimore. Then they moved three more times. Lawson went to three different middle schools.
Now Lawson, a devout Muslim who wears a traditional head covering, is confident enough to talk of her experiences.
“The worst feeling in the world is not knowing where home is,” the Baltimore City College High School senior told hundreds of other high school students and teachers at an anti-poverty rally at St. John’s College in Annapolis March 1.
Lawson is an example of a student who overcame adversity by learning not to focus on negative things. The difficult experiences gave her an appreciation for everything she has now and a will to fight.
“We’ve been quiet long enough,” Lawson told the crowd.
“She expresses her ideas freely and enthusiastically. I’m always impressed with the way she speaks,” said Judy Frumkin, an adviser for a service group Lawson joined called Students Helping Other People.
Students at the rally loudly encouraged House Speaker Casper Taylor, D- Allegany, to support legislation for a living wage, addiction treatment, school breakfast programs, and facilities to help poor and homeless people.
Later, at a meeting of Students Helping Other People, the 17-year-old discussed a tobacco conference at Martin’s West in Northeast Baltimore, where she led anti-smoking seminars for middle school students.
“The kids were really neat,” Lawson said.
Her next project is to film a violence-prevention skit she wrote for use in middle schools.
“She’s my political activist,” said her father, Mitchell Lawson, a nurse technician at Sinai Hospital. He described his daughter as a “compassionate” overachiever and a “helpless romantic.”
Within walking distance of their home of one year is Baltimore City College High School, which caters to high-performing students. It looks like a castle and invites Lawson to daydream of medieval times.
She’s not too old to indulge, and occasionally imagines a heroine rushing in to save her beloved. Maybe it’s just too many novels, she admits. Her shelves are stocked with V.C. Andrews, Anne Rice, and countless others. She usually keeps two or three novels with her and lends them out to friends.
The novels and her bedroom decor show she’s a typical teen. Posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, the “Dawson’s Creek” cast, and characters from “Star Wars: Episode I – the Phantom Menace” paper her bedroom walls.
When she walks, her silver ankle bracelet – a present from her mother – chimes with more than a dozen bells.
Lawson’s affection for those who have less extends to animals, too. She often collects strays. Three adult cats and five newborn kittens live at her mother’s house.
That love of animals and the environment motivated her to pursue a biology degree. She recently was accepted at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, her first choice of schools. She doesn’t have a specific career goal yet, simply stating she wants to do “something” with nature.
She is a “caring, concerned individual” and a “mediator,” said Zenda Givens, Lawson’s psychology teacher. She “thinks very critically about issues,” Givens added.
Lawson juggles academics and many other responsibilities by trying not to over-commit herself. “I try not to say or do things I don’t mean to carry out,” she said. “I know my limitations.”
Lawson’s father and mother separated after her two maternal grandparents died last year. Last May, Lawson and her two brothers moved in with their father in Charles Village, while her two sisters stayed with their mother, who also lives in Baltimore and works for a credit collection agency.
Sahlah Lawson kept an optimistic attitude and tried to learn from the hard times.
“No matter how bad I think I have it, there’s always somebody who has it worse,” she said.
The Serenity Prayer – asking for serenity to accept things that cannot be changed and courage to change the things that can – hangs in her bedroom. Islam taught her how to handle obstacles with a sense of acceptance. It “turned around the way I see things,” she said. “It made me realize there was a higher power at work.” -30- CNS-3-31-00