By B.C. Manion
Jackie Lawson, this year’s valedictorian at Gaither High, achieved the highest grade point average in the school’s history and gives much of the credit for her success to her mom and her sister.
“My mom, when we were little, she was a stay-at-home mom, so she helped us develop cognitively.
“She was playing classical music when we were babies. She read to us all of the time.
“We’d sit there, my dog would be up there, and we’d listen to, “The Wizard of Oz,” — a bunch of classics.
“In kindergarten, I could read, so my teacher would pick me up, she would sit me on the table, and I would read to the class.
“In first grade, we’d (she and her mom) go to the library, and we’d get a stack of books. She would make sure that I just read as much as possible.”
Lawson said her older sister Jessica – who was Gaither’s valedictorian in 2010 – also has provided enormous support.
“By the time she’d graduated, she’d gone through everything that has happened to me. She understands what it’s like to be a valedictorian, and it’s really not for the weak-hearted.
“There’s pressure. During AP exams it’s like, ‘Jackie’s gonna get a 5. Jackie has to get a 5.’ Just a lot of pressure from peers, expecting you to know everything.”
But Lawson added, “Being valedictorian isn’t really about being a super genius. It’s about working hard.”
It’s also about being willing to tackle rigorous courses and perform well, said Lawson, whose grade point average of 8.76 was more than double the 4.0 average that can be attained by achieving straight As in traditional classes.
Lawson earned the additional points by taking on challenging Advanced Placement and dual enrollment college courses and doing well.
Despite those academic accomplishments, Lawson said she has never liked to think of herself in terms of being smarter than her peers.
“I’ve always felt different, not different in a weird, strange way, but I’ve had different interests and different priorities,” she said.
Lawson said she set herself up for tackling more rigorous work in high school by completing some of her general education requirements for her freshman and sophomore years while she was still an eighth-grader at Ben Hill Middle. She said she took those classes online through Florida Virtual School.
She had to learn to set her priorities, Lawson said.
“I know freshman and sophomore year, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be in every club,” she said.
“Probably halfway through sophomore year I realized I can’t be the president of every club at school.
“There comes a time when you realize your health and your sanity are more important than a college application.”
She said one of Gaither’s math teachers gave her a tremendous piece of advice.
The teacher saw Lawson crying, when she was sleep deprived.
The teacher told her: “Jackie, I see that you’re overwhelmed. Just prioritize. Worry about the short run, you’ll eventually get there.”
Lawson took the advice to heart.
She passes that along to other students who may be feeling stressed out.
“For homework, at least, if you’re taking a million AP classes and you’re just drowning in homework … Figure out what’s due next and do that. Don’t slack off. Just get it done. You’re going to be so much happier after it’s all done, and you can go to sleep, and you can do things with your friends,” Lawson said.
It is hard to know where to focus one’s energies, while trying to figure out what it takes to be competitive for different colleges, said the young woman, who lives in Carrollwood, and is the daughter of Lisa and Joseph Lawson.
“My parents and I, we went to these little college fairs and they tell you ‘Do this, do that, but do everything, and make sure you’re good at it.’ It’s all just confusing.
“It came down to picking and choosing what I liked and what was most important to me. I felt like if I want to do something, I want to do it because I like to do it. You get so much weird advice coming from all different kinds of college counselors.”
Lawson said she knows it sounds like a cliché, but students do need to pursue what they love.
“It turns out that the college that fits you is going to accept you,” said Lawson who will be attending Columbia University on a full scholarship as a John Kluge Scholar.
Besides appreciating the help she’s received from family, Lawson is also grateful for teachers who have helped along the way, especially Louisa Ogle, her journalism teacher; Danielle de Gregory Sweet, her AP psychology teacher; Teresa Trumbach, her AP United States History and AP Government and Comparative Politics teacher; and Karen Haag, her Honors Anatomy teacher.
She said Haag’s class was one of the best she ever experienced.
“She was a fantastic teacher. She really knows her stuff. She makes it interesting, and she makes it so every kid is engaged,” Lawson said.
Besides being valedictorian, Lawson is a national Advanced Placement Scholar, was editor-in-chief of the school’s award-winning paper, The Pony Express, and was president of Quill and Scroll Honor Society. She wrote for the Tampa Bay Times’ student-led newspaper, *tb-two, as well.
Lawson also kept busy with a part-time job at the Bob Sierra YMCA as a camp counselor and a nursery attendant.
While she’s finished her high school career, Lawson is excited about what lies ahead.
She plans to study neuroscience and aspires to become a neurosurgeon.
Occasionally, she said, she’s missed having a more traditional high school experience. But those feelings are fleeting.
“Honestly, it’s all been worth it,” Lawson said. “I’m going to be living in New York City, at 18, for free.”