Shenise Shipman did not have time for her sons' excuses.
She was a single mother raising two sons 11 years apart. She was a correctional officer, tough enough to work for years on New York's notorious Rikers Island.
Kerry, 26, and Koby, 15, still see her face in the West Ashley apartment where she spent her final months dying of cancer. She wears a small, proud grin in a picture overlooking the breakfast table. It was one of their last family portraits, taken in a pool on a trip to Disney World.
Sometimes they still hear her voice.
"No pity party for me. I got to do what I got to do."
"‘What are you crying about? Go ahead and get that done, Kerry."
Shenise died at age 49 on Nov. 28, 2016, just months after receiving a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer. Since she's been gone, the Shipman brothers have lived alone together. And they have both chosen difficult paths.
Kerry is on track to earn a degree in December from the Charleston School of Law, and he has been working this year as a clerk in the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office. Koby is a member of the inaugural freshman class at Early College High School, a brand-new public school that allows students to take heavy loads of college courses via Trident Technical College's downtown Palmer Campus.
Koby's first year at the new school has been grueling, and academics were only half the struggle.
"It's us against the world," Koby said one afternoon last fall, staring down a stack of homework on the breakfast table.
Moving to Charleston
Some days, "us" means more than just Koby and Kerry. Shenise's older sister, their Aunt Rebecca, comes to town to help when the stress gets to be too much, like during exam season.
Rebecca sees what her nephews are up against, but she knows her sister raised them well.
"They are feeding off each other. They’re doing everything like their mom taught them," Rebecca said during a recent visit in April.
Snippets of old conversations come back to Kerry now — times when his mom prepared him for the worst.
"What if something happened to me? You need to be able to cook," Shenise would say.
"Well, I'll get a girlfriend who can cook," a younger Kerry would reply.
"And what if she leaves you?" she would shoot back. "Then you'll be hungry."
Shenise raised her boys alone, and from an early age, she would give the boys adult tasks like going to pay bills or handling phone calls for the family. The responsibilities always felt a little beyond their years, but now life has come crashing in too early and it all feels like prologue.
Kerry understands why his mother was so hard on him. He didn't take school seriously enough and ended up dropping out of high school, then earned his high school credentials through Bladen Community College in Dublin, N.C. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in sociology and criminal justice from Shaw University in Raleigh, hoping to follow in his mother's footsteps as a corrections officer.
But she wanted more for him.
"She considered that the bottom of the barrel. She said, ‘Be better, do more than what I did,'" Kerry said.
When Shenise fell ill in the summer of 2016, she was working at a correctional facility in Raleigh. Koby was in seventh grade, and Kerry was away attending the now-defunct Charlotte School of Law after earning a master's degree in public administration from the online University of Phoenix.
Shenise began to feel sluggish in July. A strong woman, she suddenly had trouble climbing stairs. One trip to the hospital, and doctors told her she had stage 4 colon cancer, the most advanced stage.
Kerry had applied to transfer to the Charleston School of Law right around that time, seeking a way out as the Charlotte school was facing probation from the American Bar Association. Right around the time of his mom's diagnosis, he found out he'd been accepted.
Kerry told her he would defer the acceptance to take care of her. She refused to let him do that, so he made an ultimatum.
"I’m not gonna go to law school unless you come with me," Kerry told her. So they loaded a U-Haul truck and moved to an apartment they'd never seen before, west of the Ashley River in Charleston.
The hard way
There were fights. Shenise resisted letting her sons care for her; she was supposed to be the caretaker. Koby would get frustrated with his brother and storm off, tired of cooking dinner or sorting pills into a day-of-the-week organizer.
At West Ashley Middle, where Koby arrived in the eighth grade, Koby made new friends but mostly kept his home life to himself.
"Even my teachers really didn’t know until she passed and I missed school," Koby said.
Kerry, meanwhile, was tired from law school and work and parenting his brother and caring for his mom. On top of it all, he had his own son, Kerry Jr., living with the child's mother back in Charlotte. Kerry traveled back and forth to see the boy, who is now 7.
As he studied, Kerry took jobs, including a clerk position in the U.S. Attorney's Office in downtown Charleston. He has been working this year in Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's office.
Kerry was elected president of his school's National Black Law Students Association chapter and spent a recent Saturday morning hosting local high-schoolers for a Minority Law Day event. Koby came along to help.
Dean Andy Abrams taught one of Kerry's classes at the law school and saw him as a natural leader.
"Faculty, staff and, most importantly, his student colleagues all seem to migrate to him when problems arise and wise counsel and insight is needed," Abrams said. "I attribute this to his clear competence, compassion and maturity.”
This year at Early College High, Koby confesses he considered quitting more than once and going back to a traditional school. The students spent their first year cramming most of the requirements for a high school diploma in semester-long segments, including classes like biology and chemistry that most students don't take until their sophomore or junior year.
Principal Vanessa Denney knows what it means when she sees Koby hang his head in the hallway. She knows many students find themselves at a crossroads at his age, and she also knows his story.
"Do I push here or do I quit here? Do I go above and beyond, or do I just do what everybody else is doing?" Denney said. "The things that are worth having the most are the hardest, and 15-year-old Koby doesn’t know that. But Kerry sure does."
Kerry has not decided on a path for his legal career yet, but he said he ultimately wants to go into politics. He plans to spend three weeks this summer working in U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's office on Capitol Hill.
If Koby stays on track at Early College High, he could finish with two years' worth of college credits that will transfer to any South Carolina public college. In the long run, he says he wants to be an attorney — just like his brother.