This month The Tennessean is introducing five students who will be featured throughout the year as they make their way through the first year of the Tennessee Promise program.
TAHJ TURNLEY, 17
Tahj Turnley is different. And he likes it that way.
He wakes up at 5 every morning to make sure he has time to iron his uniform before heading to Benton Hall Academy in Franklin.
When he hangs out with friends at Opry Mills, he’s more likely to change into a button-down and bowtie than a T-shirt and jeans. He and his friends sometimes test new dance moves as shoppers pass by. (He’s taken classes in ballet, ballroom and tap dancing.)
But things weren’t always this way.
Tahj started high school at Hillsboro High, where he was a D and F student, with some friends who pulled him away from his schoolwork.
Moving to Benton Hall gave Tahj a change of scenery and perspective. He competes with classmates to get the best grades, and squares off in chess matches in his spare time.
Now, he says, he’s ready for a new challenge.
A car enthusiast, Tahj wants to earn a certification in automotive technology at a technical college before moving onto a four-year university for classes in mechanical engineering.
It’s a goal that would have seemed far-fetched a few years ago. But his mother radiates optimism for her only son.
“He’s just in bloom now,” Tiffani Adams said. “These are his best days.”
Bartlett, a suburb of Memphis
At 4 years old, Jonathan Dyer’s grandmother took him to watch firefighters at work.
They would sit outside the station for hours, waiting for a call to come in. Jonathan watched as the firemen rescued people from charred homes and mangled wreckage.
He grew to love the organized chaos of the scene, and he began planning to join their ranks. He collected badges and volunteered, doing administrative work and taking photographs of polished engines and blazing flames.
The experience helped him to embrace his own organized chaos during senior year.
Family is his top priority, but he keeps an emergency radio humming at the dinner table. He gets excused early if a call comes in.
His Tennessee Promise mentor is the mayor of Bartlett, and yearbook adviser Caroline Howard believes Jonathan could become mayor one day.
Brent Perkins, who works with Jonathan at the Shelby County Fire Department, thinks Jonathan can go as far as his dreams take him.
“I don’t know where he’s gonna stop,” Perkins said. “He might exceed mayor.”
Kingsport, 90 minutes northeast of Knoxville
Justin Short and his mom are a team. His parents got divorced when he was 2, and Justin grew up watching his single mother, Jill Litz, struggle to pay the bills. She briefly owned a healthcare store and worked as a vitamin supplier.
Then, in the early 2000s, while Litz was lifting a box at work, she hurt her back. It never healed.
Before he was 10, Justin, an only child, became a caregiver.
When he was 11, he started working at the family’s appliance shop to bring in a little extra money. He strips copper and aluminum from old refrigerators and washing machines for a few hours each week.
Litz is still unable to work, and sometimes the pain is so excruciating that she can barely move. Over time, Justin has taken on more responsibilities, helping to lift her out of bed in the morning, making grocery runs and tidying the apartment they share.
Justin has come to relish his role as a helping hand, and he hopes to channel that energy into a career.
He wants to study criminal justice in school before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. Ultimately, he’d like to return to his small hometown to become a police officer. His grandmother, who lives in the same apartment complex, will help care for Litz while he is away.
When Justin talks about his dreams, Litz can’t help but get teary-eyed.
“It sounds just exactly like the boy I raised,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
Classrooms aren’t Sabrina Cornejo’s style. She’d much rather spend her time earning a paycheck.
Throughout high school, she looked forward to summer because that’s when she got to help her grandfather with his lawn care business. She jokes that she built up the muscles of a Hulk lookalike after hauling a weed eater for months.
When she learned that she was eligible for Sumner County’s online high school, E.B. Wilson, she jumped at the chance to transfer there. Now, she takes classes on her laptop after a full day of work at the Critter Clinic, a veterinarian’s office and kennel in Gallatin.
She will start her second job – at a nearby Lowe’s – on Monday. She’s ecstatic.
Sabrina says her work ethic comes from her grandparents, who raised her to value the grindstone and the independence that comes with it.
When she turned 18, Sabrina moved to her own apartment with her fiance. They’re already saving up for a house – and mulling retirement plans.
For Sabrina, college represents the path to a life on solid financial footing.
“She knows what she wants to do, and she knows what she needs to do to get there,” said Sabrina’s grandfather, Ernest Glasgow. “She can go wherever she wants to go. As long as she puts her mind to it.”
Sometimes it seems like Geraldine Hernandez is never at home.
She spends so much time at Glencliff High School that teachers call her their adopted daughter.
She volunteers for the American Red Cross and helps organize blood drives at school. She is president of a group of students interested in the healthcare industry. She is a school ambassador, and gives tours to visitors. She is editor-in-chief of the newspaper and leader of the yearbook. She’s also in charge of organizing prom this spring.
When she finally gets back from school, she finds ways to keep busy, drawing colorful pictures of animals and flowers to fill the walls of the room she shares with her 8-year-old sister Katherine.
For Geraldine, the activities are a chance to find herself. Her work at Glencliff has helped her decide she wants to become a nurse.
That dream matured in school, but it has roots at home.
Geraldine grew up helping her mother care for her 12-year-old brother Krisstofer, who has autism, and Katherine, who has epilepsy. It started as a chore, but at 18, it has become a mission.
If she can help her siblings feel better, why not do the same thing for other people?
Geraldine’s mother, Nuria Hernandez, beams when she talks about her daughter and how far she’s come.
Sitting together last week, Nuria spoke to her daughter in Spanish. Geraldine translated her mother’s words into English, a call and response that brought tears to their eyes.
“I feel deeply appreciative to see how much you’ve accomplished up until now,” she said. “Get everything you desire.”