Shabrinna McCalpine had a baby the summer before starting high school. At 14, she went from struggling with math homework to struggling with diaper changes and late-night feedings.
In her freshman year, students — including some who had been her friends in middle school — bullied McCalpine for having a child, her mother said. She tried to ignore the abuse and focus on her education, but eventually she became so unhappy that she considered suicide.
“I just felt like I wanted to get away from all of it,” said McCalpine, who is now 18.
With counseling and a change in schools, McCalpine’s life changed dramatically. In 2011 she moved to an alternative public charter high school, Boston Day and Evening Academy, where students who have dropped out or struggled in traditional schools get individual attention and support.
“It felt like a new beginning for me,” she said. “[The teachers] were really nice and very open.”
While her mother looked after McCalpine’s daughter, she focused doggedly on her studies, on helping other students, and on learning leadership skills, though some days she came to school with only an hour or two of sleep.
On Wednesday, she will graduate as valedictorian and plans to attend a small, private college to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian.
“It would have been very easy for her, as a young mother, to take a completely different path,” said Margaret Samp, 54, director of postgraduate planning at Boston Day and Evening Academy. “She could have easily gone through the program and just done what she needed to do, but clearly she went above and beyond.”
Inside her tidy apartment at the Bromley-Heath public housing development in Jamaica Plain, Tara McCalpine’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled the bullying McCalpine endured at another school.
“Shabrinna was brave enough . . . to come to me and be like, ‘Mommy, I can’t take this bullying any more. I need help,’ ” said Tara McCalpine, 38.
Tara McCalpine found counseling for her daughter through Bournewood Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Brookline. She moved her daughter to a different high school, and when that school felt too large and overwhelming, she moved her again, to Day and Evening Academy in Roxbury.
Throughout the trying times, mother and daughter remained focused on McCalpine’s academic success.
“I tell her, ‘You won’t be the last teenage mom, you won’t be the first. You’ve got to be a role model for your daughter. So this is who you push for,’ ” Tara McCalpine said.
McCalpine, the eldest of four children, said she has received constant love and support from both parents, who are no longer together but remain friendly. Even when they learned she had become pregnant, they never wavered, she said. It was clear from the start that she would keep her daughter, Jakyra, now 3.
“It was pretty much my decision to keep her, and they supported me all the way,” she said.
McCalpine said motherhood forced her to grow up fast and to accept responsibility for her actions. In interviews, educators from the academy praised her maturity and dedication.
Diane Merrill, admissions manager at the academy and adviser to a support group for teen mothers, said McCalpine has been generous with her time, using her own experiences to become a mentor to other young mothers. Because McCalpine is humble, Merrill said, her gifts can go unnoticed.
“Shabrinna is just a wonderfully self-effacing, quiet, gentle young woman,” Merrill said. “You don’t know the strength that is in her until you give her a piece of work to do, and then you are just amazed by what she returns back.”
Connie Borab was McCalpine’s English teacher and adviser for the school’s student leadership team, which the teen was invited to join. Borab said the team seeks to bolster self-confidence and leadership skills, and its work challenged McCalpine to overcome her natural shyness.
“She was very quiet. She wasn’t one to take the spotlight right away,” Borab said. “But she set the goal, ‘I’ve got to take the lead’ and she did.”
McCalpine will take on her next set of challenges at Mount Ida College in Newton, where she plans to study veterinary medicine. She will be the first in her immediate family to attend college.
From an early age, she said, she has loved animals, and she has always wanted to be a veterinarian. As a girl, McCalpine had little interest in dolls, Tara McCalpine said. Instead, she would use a toy doctor’s kit to perform exams on family pets. This year, McCalpine worked as an intern at the Pine Banks Animal Hospital in Malden.
For Tara McCalpine, her daughter’s academic success brings pride but also great confidence in her abilities.
“She’s a role model . . . not just for her daughter, but for her younger brothers and her sister,” she said. “If she can do it, with all that she went through, they can do it, too.”
McCalpine does not see her accomplishments as a big deal. She said anyone who is willing to work hard can do just as well.
“If I have a child, and I can still come to school early every day and stay after and do work, I’m pretty sure you can,” she said.Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.