Sherae Brackens stands in a hallway at Jeffersontown High School.
Sherae Brackens, a senior at Jeffersontown High School, poses in the hallway a week before graduation. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Sherae Brackens sits in an empty, chilly seminar room in Jeffersontown High School, her frosted white nails tapping lightly on her phone.

She flips her phone around, a black and white photo of a mother and child filling the screen. In it, Brackens’ mom sits smiling, holding Sherae as a baby swaddled in a white cloth. Brackens’ phone glows in the dim room as she smiles softly.

Eighteen years later, Brackens says she ended up a lot like her mother. She’s vibrant and bubbly, describing herself as a “people person” more than once. She laughs about having too many clothes, saying shopping was her mom’s go-to celebration tactic.

Having inherited her mom’s work ethic, she’s graduating from Jeffersontown with a full ride to Morehead State University to study small business entrepreneurship. She’s the first in her family to go to college.

She wishes her mom was there to see it. Halfway between the black and white photo and now, Brackens’ mother died from pancreatic cancer.

One day during elementary school, she came home to her aunt in a recliner and her mom in a bed. Visibly losing weight and looking ashen, her mom wasn’t focused on her state. Instead, she was focused on her daughter’s sweater, noting how she was growing out of it.

“She was like, ‘Hey, baby girl, you know the sweater is getting too small, right?’ I just stood there. I was like, ‘OK.’ And then I went to my room,” she said.

It was one of the first times Brackens, then 9 years old, sensed something was wrong. In the two years that her mom was sick, her dad never told her or her younger sister what was happening. Brackens found out her mom was dying days before she died.

“She doesn’t look right, but I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” she remembers thinking.

She never had time to grieve, she said. Instead, her dad told her she was the “woman of the house” now, making her look after her kindergarten-aged sister. Instead of parenting, she says her dad grew absent, focusing on other women instead of his kids.

Things at school weren’t much better. Her grades took a hit. She was the only African American student at her school, resulting in kids touching her hair without permission and asking her why her skin was dark.

But then her grandmother took her and her sister in on the second-to-last day of sixth grade. Things changed. She was no longer the “woman of the house,” she didn’t need to take care of anything except herself and her homework. Her grades began going back up. Life was easier.

Her grandmother also paid attention to her — “You know how grandmothers are, right?” Her grandmother took Brackens to the hospital to figure out why she had intense, two-week periods. Doctors found she had a blood disorder, one that would have gone undetected without a hospital visit.

Then the pendulum swung again, and the custody tug-of-war continued. Her dad yanked Brackens back to his house in Indiana her eighth-grade year after seeing her grandmother trying to apply for food stamps, potentially jeopardizing the surviving children checks he had been receiving but not fully sharing with the people who needed them.

“I put my father through hell the whole time I was over there,” she said. “For you to put a price on two girls, they lost their mother at 9 years old — that hurts. That hurts more than anything.”

The move forced her to switch schools midway through the year, disrupting her education and life. Despite back-and-forth, this time was the only time she felt homeless. Her father’s house “wasn’t a home,” she said.

After missing the final events of eighth grade — class trips, ceremonies — she went back to her grandmother’s, where she stayed. There, things improved again.

She still struggles from time to time. She recounted a weeklong bout of depression late last year that left her stuck in bed, unable to do anything. “I just wanted everything to be over,” she said. “I just felt like nothing was moving.”

Thoughts of her mom still creep up from occasionally, especially around the time of milestones like prom and graduation.

“I was looking through my prom pictures and she wasn’t in any of them,” she said. The moment itself is fine, but afterward, it “crashes and burns,” she says.

But she focused on her education, staying at Jeffersontown for all four years of high school. Ashley Drager, her business academy coach, describes her as “one of the most positive, energetic, driven young women” she’s ever met. She danced on the school’s dance team — Royal Unity — and took business classes tailored to her dream of running a small business.

After being surrounded by family-owned businesses, Brackens’ entrepreneurial dreams came naturally.

One relative owns a barber shop. Another owns a salon. Her younger sister runs a cupcake-making business. Now, Brackens plans to join the tradition with a line of dance studios — hopefully after dancing professionally for a few years, she said.

She thinks her mom would be proud of her.

“And we would probably go celebrate because that’s just what we did,” she adds with a small laugh and smile. “She would celebrate me until she would go broke.”

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Olivia Krauth
Krauth reports on education in Louisville, including JCPS, the University of Louisville and state policy.Before joining Insider Louisville, she covered technology and business as a reporter at TechRepublic. She also spent time on the data team at the Austin American-Statesman in Texas as a Dow Jones intern.Krauth graduated from UofL, where she was an award-winning editor of The Louisville Cardinal and obtained a degree in investigative journalism with a minor in Russian studies.Email Olivia at [email protected]