Reverting to a time and place of past trauma is often an avoided task, but there was Tiffany Hancock, sitting idly in a dimly lit conference room adjacent to the library at Hattie Cotton STEM Magnet Elementary School.
She smiled, shuffled some materials she wanted to share and looked up as her almond eyes traveled forward.
“I was bullied,” said Hancock.
Hancock, a licensing specialist for Dollar General Corporation, chose to return to her native East Nashville nest to shine through an overcast of bullying by becoming a PENCIL Reading Partner. Her decision to provide essential reading time to students in Metro Nashville Public Schools, where 72 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level, was easy. The Reading Partners program and its volunteers help students grow in their reading skills and make a connection with a caring adult.
“The reasons I’m coming back are because I’m so excited to come to a school where A, I was a student and B, I want to give back to the community that I came from,” Hancock said. “I grew up in East Nashville. I attended this school. I had some great moments at this school. I also wanted to have a positive impact on something that happened so negatively to me.”
Hancock attended a then space-stricken Hattie Cotton as a fifth-grade student. She was placed in a portable with sixth graders, the origin of her bullying. Bullying didn’t deter Hancock from exceling in class. It was her work ethic as a straight A student and a desire to learn that unfortunately welcomed bullying.
“I just worked very hard as a student and thought that would earn respect from my parents, teachers and other students, but it made me a target for bullying,” Hancock said. “I had people in my classroom who didn’t treat me well, but I had good moments.”
Those good moments allowed Hancock to return to see the growth of Hattie Cotton, which has evolved into a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) school that has an enrollment of 263 students. Hattie Cotton school leadership prides themselves in offering a challenging education in a safe and nurturing environment that also meets students’ social and emotional needs. Hattie Cotton also has anti-bullying training clubs.
Sara Aronson, the PENCIL Reading Partners and Background Check Coordinator, said Hancock had a friendly and welcoming demeanor when she met her and was proud to share, she had previously been a student at Hattie Cotton.
“I have seen Reading Partners make a difference in students’ confidence when they are reading and in their overall attitude around reading,” Aronson said. “I hope that overall, the students take away that their Reading Partner cared enough to come every week and spend time reading with them. I think that is one way we show and not tell the students how important reading is, by showing up and doing the work with them when we are not being required to.”
Hancock is a mother of three daughters and two stepchildren. She also has a nephew who is in the PENCIL Reading Partner program in an MNPS school. Hancock’s mission wasn’t complete after the graduation of her children. Spending 30 minutes a week reading to a student is just a start. Looking in the mirror at her own reflection and complexion reminds her of the change she must help to create.
“I want to see children succeed, especially our children; African American children,” Hancock said. “I want them to succeed. I was a doggone good mother and now that they’re grown, I just don’t stop there. It’s an opportunity to show love and to help other students grow and progress and to show that student there are people out there who care that they obtain an education, be a good citizen of the world and go to college.”