Antoinette Tuff, hero

Antoinette Tuff: may her name be written in letters of gold in the Book of Life.

Do you recognize her name? She is the mid-forties bookkeeper at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy (i.e., elementary school) in Decatur, Georgia, who on August 27 persuaded a mentally ill young man with a powerful gun to lay down his gun and submit to arrest. She thereby saved almost a thousand lives.

She was in the school office, subbing for the regular secretary at lunchtime, when Michael Brandon Hill, aged 20, who had gone to the school as a child, walked into the office with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and the conviction that he had nothing to live for.He had gained access to the school by following a parent who had failed to shut the door behind him or her. His plan was to kill as many of the 870 children in the school  as possible, be granted his 15 minutes of fame, and then die in a blaze of “glory” at the hands of the police.

Here is the link to a television interview with her after the incident. It is 16 minutes long; and if you choose to watch it, my hunch is that afterwards you will be ready to acknowledge that you have never spent 16 minutes of your one precious life in a better way. (Thanks to Jim Forest for sending it along.) (And don’t be put off by the commercial for the Atlanta Falcons with which the little video begins: it only lasts a minute.)

Here are some of the elements of the incident which I find striking. First, she saw what was in front of her face, as Jesus in the gospel of  Thomas (Logion 5) advises us to do: a profoundly sad, indeed despairing and mentally ill young person. Having seen him in this way, she was moved with compassion: he was “a hurtin’ young man.” She listened to what Hill had to say and reflected his words back to him so that he would know that she had heard him. Then–and this is so critical–she refused to accept his script. “I’m going to die today.” “No, you don’t have to die today.” And she prayed nonstop–more on that below.

Recognizing his vulnerability, she shared with him her own. She demonstrated the truth of Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 12:10–“When I am weak, then I am strong.” She told him about her divorce, about her multiply-disabled son and about her own temptation to suicide. She asked his name; and learning that his surname was Hill, created a bond between them by telling him that that was her mother’s maiden name–perhaps they were related! (Unlikely, given that she is black and he is white.) As she shared her own life, he began to do the same. He told her he was off his meds–in fact his Medicaid had expired. She told him she loved him, and called him first “sir,” then “sweetie” and “baby.” He told her to send out a message over the intercom, which she did. He told her to call a TV channel, which again she did–the crazy cultural obsession with one’s own potential celebrity which manifests itself so often in incidents such as this. She sent out another message in which she instructed the police not to approach, knowing that a shoot-out would certainly result. Eventually she persuaded him to lay his gun down on the table, and lie down on the floor behind her counter, and wait for the police. (It’s OK: you can start breathing again!)

Journalist Gary Younge wrote a very thoughtful article about this incident in the August 30 issue of The Guardian Weekly (p. 18). He described Antoinette (we’re on a first-name basis since the second time I watched the video!) as a woman “armed with emotional intelligence, immense poise and copious amounts of empathy.” In doing what she did, she confounded what Younge identifies as the tendency of our politics in the West to assume “that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy.”

Back to prayer. She did what Paul recommends in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “pray without ceasing”–I guess so! She also put into practice what she had heard about in a sermon at her church, that we should “anchor ourselves in the Lord.” Younge is a member of what to me is a new religious category: lapsed agnostic (!). As he says, he used to not know and then he stopped caring. So it is as a liberal secularist that he challenges the willingness of many in our society to tar all religion with the same brush, to see religion as “the source of the world’s problems and the religious as its unquestioning dupes.”  To take this view, he points out, is to dismiss the contributions to the health of the planet, to tikkun olam, of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and others–I was happy to see him include in his list the name of Trevor Huddleston, a personal hero and indirect mentor of mine.

Younge tells us how the incident ended. Antoinette hung up on the dispatcher, the police took Hill away, and she uttered through her tears, “Woo, Jesus”–and she wasn’t swearing. I confess to  you that Gary Younge’s article is the first item that I have ever read in the GW at the end of which there were tears in my eyes as well.

Antoinette, you are my hero.


For further reading: “Emergency prayer,” by Stephanie Paulsell, Harvard Divinity School; in Christian Century (October 2, 2013), p.35, or on the web at

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