The Washington Post

From homeless child to star student

The opponent in the wrestling match tossed Michael Robinson into the front row. It was the regional high school wrestling tournament, and the illegal move was an act of psychological warfare.

“It was one of those moments when things escalate,’’ said Principal Debra
Mugge, who watched the match, horrified.

Her star student was bruised but not shaken. He took a deep breath, returned to the mat and won the bout.

“Life is analogous to a wrestling match,’’ reflected Michael, a three-sport athlete, trombonist, student government president and straight-A student at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. “Everything you do is based on preparation. What the outcome will be is based on hard work. . . . A lot of your success is determined by heart.’’

The young life of Michael Robinson is a story of sweat, studies and struggle. He is Springbrook’s first Ron Brown scholar; the designation, named after the late Clinton administration commerce secretary, comes with a $40,000 scholarship. It’s the latest accolade for an 18-year-old who grew up fatherless on a diet of canned foods and rice, endured months in a homeless shelter, and is now a first-generation college prospect choosing among Columbia, Princeton and Yale.

At each of those schools, about 7 percent of applicants were accepted this year. Of the 6,200 who applied for the Brown scholarship, 16 won the prize.

Michael’s teachers say his success is a measure of a teenager obsessively focused on achievement. Sometimes they wonder if he’s even aware of the odds that were stacked against him. Despite all the obstacles, he can think of only one thing that’s really bothered him: “Getting that B,’’ he said, laughing about a quarterly progress report in an AP course last school year — the only blemish in 12 years of report cards.

Early on, his mother suspected her son had a gift. He wasn’t a particularly early reader or talker, but 41-year-old Chimene Jules notes with a laugh that “he was potty trained — fully potty trained — at 18 months.’’

Jules, who was a retail manager in Manassas, raised five children on her own. She and Michael’s father had a falling out, and he’s been out of the picture since Michael, the third child, was 2.

“We lived paycheck-to-paycheck,’’ Jules said, “and I worked hard to keep a roof over their heads and make sure they had food every night.’’

Many nights, though, she could afford to give the children only rice or oatmeal.

School fueled Michael. He was posting perfect math and reading scores on assessment tests. His neighbors had horses; he had a copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

In April 2004, Jules lost her job. She fell behind on payments on her home, then maxed out her credit cards trying to stay afloat. Five months later, she told the three children who were at home to pack up the little they had; they had to move to a homeless shelter.

The family of four slept in a single room. Michael’s mother and sister shared a queen-size bed. He and his younger brother slept on bunks. They looked forward to Fridays, when Pizza Hut donated pies to the homeless.

Michael was 11. He remembers pleading with his bus driver to drop him a block from the shelter after football practice because he feared teasing from his peers.

But the experience only made him more focused.

“Life is going to take you through difficult times and to places you don’t expect,’’ Michael reflected. “When I was young, I figured that if I wanted to succeed, I had to take advantage of every opportunity in school and sports. It could be that thing that would take me to the top.’’

He kept getting straight As in school. After school, he’d pester his mother: “What did you do today? How many jobs did you apply for?”

Jules tried not to say that she was becoming depressed. She lost 30 pounds. She caught pneumonia and was hospitalized for eight days. Finally, after three months at the shelter, Jules found a job as a property manager. She later bought a house in Silver Spring.

In retrospect, Michael thinks he was probably too hard on his mother. He didn’t know any better, he says. But she says it was Michael’s push that helped her pull through.

His tenacity extended even to the minor annoyances of school life. As student body president at Springbrook, Michael noticed that students who brought their lunches from home had no way to heat up food. So Michael started what became know as the “microwave project.”

Teachers hated the idea. They feared that students might use the machine incorrectly, even blow it up. Plus, there was no money. But Michael solicited donations to purchase two small microwaves.

The principal acquiesced. “I just tell people that Michael Robinson wanted me to do it,’’ said Mugge, shrugging.

No fewer than five people can be seen waiting to use the machines every lunch period, according to the assistant principal. In fact, the school is adding a third.

“If anything, my legacy will be microwaves!” Michael said, laughing.

With graduation nearing, his weighted grade-point average is the second highest at Springbrook — a 4.69, with seven Advanced Placement courses. The teacher who once gave him a B ended up writing Michael’s college recommendation letter.

“I thought,” Michael said, “he would be able to describe how hard I work and that I don’t give up.”

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.



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