RALEIGH — Tuesday’s ceremony would have been a routine swearing in of a new attorney licensed to practice in North Carolina, except for Sharika Robinson’s long journey against nearly insurmountable odds to get there.
Robinson, a 30-year-old single mother of four children, graduated in May, first in her class of 157 students from the North Carolina Central University School of Law. On Tuesday, she was sworn in at the Wake County Courthouse by state Supreme Court Associate Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the first African-American woman and the third woman elected to serve on the state’s highest court.
“Oh my God, it was so surreal,” said Robinson, who now works as a law clerk with the federal district court in Michigan. “Sharika Robinson, a teenage mother from Albemarle, being sworn in by a Supreme Court justice. Somebody pinch me, please.”
Pregnant at 15 with her first child, Sharria, and again at 17 with her son, Mark, Robinson knows the odds were against her to even graduate from Albemarle Senior High School in Stanly County.
“I felt like I was being fed pipe dreams of success when the statistics ... were against me,” Robinson said. “I was a teenage mother. Even if I graduated from high school, what then? But I kept on.”
“She could have easily went another way. It’s really remarkable,” Robinson’s father, Michael Butler, 49, of Charlotte said. “All these accomplishments when the devil trying to take you a different way.”
Wake County District Judge Robert Rader, who presided over the ceremony, called Robinson’s resume – her honors and work experience – “quite an achievement. ... It’s impressive without children. But with children, it’s really amazing.”
Family made the difference
In 1996, when Robinson was 14, her mother died of cancer. Even so, Michelle Butler had a hand in her daughter’s determination to succeed.
“Before she died she made me promise I would get an education,” Robinson said.
Still, it was a rough period for her.
“I started clinging to my boyfriend at that time. We were kids. ... He was there for me when my mother passed.”
By the time she was 15, Robinson was pregnant – the same age that her mother had married, become pregnant and contented herself with being a housewife in Albemarle.
Robinson, however, wanted something different.
“I wasn’t going to get married and let all my goals go, like my mother did.”
And other adults also supported her goals – her father and her maternal grandmother, Georgia Hough.
Robinson said her grandmother, who taught her how to read, grew up on a farm owned by her great-grandfather in the early 1900s. The Houghs didn’t have much, but they owned their own land and grew their own food. Georgia Hough liked to say that she never worked as a maid, and that she saw in her father a strong-willed, determined man who always made a way for his family.
“She would always say, ‘Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done,’” Robinson said.
Not all were supportive
Robinson took her grandmother’s stories to heart as a teenage mom when her high school administrators encouraged her to drop out or consider home schooling.
“It was rough,” she said. “The school administrators often tried to push me out, like I was a plague.”
Three more of Robinson’s classmates became pregnant. The group made a pact to stay in school and graduate. Two went on to become nurses. Another became a medical assistant. Robinson took advanced placement courses and graduated at the top of her class.
She gave birth to her second child weeks after her high school graduation, but did not miss a day of school.
“I refused to miss a day. I didn’t make anything less than an ‘A’” she said. “Being in school pregnant was more like a privilege, not even a right.”
She did find support among her teachers. She was so influenced by chemistry teacher William Yesky’s support that she majored in that subject when she was accepted at N.C. State University. Her childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician seemed likely after a summer internship at the Villanova University Medical School between her junior and senior years of high school.
“It was because of my grandmother,” she said of her dream to become a doctor. “She raised me to believe that I could be anything.”
College with kids
Robinson arrived at N.C. State for the 2001 fall semester with two children in tow, so her first concern was finding a home, suitable day care and a job.
She found a $650-a-month apartment on Western Boulevard, enrolled Sharria, 4, in day care and took Mark, 3, to class with her. She found a job as a nursing assistant at Blue Ridge Health Care, where she worked until she graduated.
Dr. Wandra Hill, a professor in the school’s college of physical science and mathematics, was Robinson’s mom away from home. Hill was determined to help graduate the handful of African-American students enrolled in the physical sciences program, Robinson said. She invited Robinson to church and counseled her on everything from dressing professionally to finding loans and scholarships.
“She was what I needed,” Robinson said.
When she became pregnant with Tierre during her senior year, she abandoned her dream to be a pediatrician and decided to become a chemist.
Work, then school again
She went to work for a pharmaceutical firm in Charlotte in 2006 and moved quickly up the career ladder. Soon after taking the job, her daughter Presense was born. Robinson is currently engaged to the father of her two youngest children.
Robinson decided to leave the field in 2009 for a more exciting career where she could help others. She took the law school aptitude test and was accepted at NCCU. Most people were aghast that she left her job during an economic recession to spend three years in law school. Only her grandmother approved.
“She loved to see me fight to fulfill my potential,” Robinson said.
Hough moved into a Cary townhouse with her granddaughter and great-grandbabies.
“She was really excited. She wanted to help watch the kids,” Robinson said.
By the end of her first year, she was ranked No 1 in her class.
“I felt like it was what I always wanted to do,” she said. “…I loved what I was learning. I felt empowered with knowledge.”
While she was interning with a law firm in Atlanta in summer 2011, before her final year in law school, her grandmother, Robinson’s emotional and spiritual rock, was diagnosed with cancer. Hough died in October.
Grieving, Robinson did not return to law school for two weeks. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to be an attorney anymore.
She thought about the times she would share with her grandmother, the things she was learning in class and the work she did at her internships. Sometimes, Hough would look through the pages of Robinson’s textbooks.
Robinson knew her grandmother would have not respected her decision to quit.
“When I graduated I thought about how proud my grandmother was,” Robinson said. “I thought about what she would always say: ‘Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.’”