The morning I read over the transcript from my interview with Antoinette Tuff—the woman who famously talked down a would-be school shooter in Atlanta—I got an email from my kids' school. The schools had been placed on "soft" lockdown. A bank just half a block from the elementary school had been robbed, and the suspect was on the loose. By police order, no one would be allowed to leave or enter the school building, and kids would stay in their locked classrooms while class continued.
Journalistic integrity aside, I began my conversation with Tuff by thanking her on behalf of parents everywhere for doing what she did. I had told her that she was the person we all hope and pray will be in our schools, ready to step in and save our kids. As I tried to ward of the sense of panic of having my own kids under lockdown, I don't regret what I said, professional or not. Antoinette Tuff—along with the teachers and administrators trained to protect our kids at schools—are heroes, deserving our thanks.
Because what Antoinette did was heroism. On Tuesday, August 20, 2013, when Michael Hill stormed into the front office at McNair Academy in Decatur, Georgia, with a loaded AK-47 in his hands, Tuff—a school bookkeeper—watched in fear as he aimed then fired the gun. Alone in a room with the intruder, a young man with "a demon inside him…there to steal, kill, and destroy," she talked to a 911 dispatcher and spoke lovingly to "death itself."
During the call, you can hear her tell Hill, "It's going to be all right… I just want you to know I love you, OK?...We all go through something in life." Tuff ultimately convinced him to put down his weapon—without ever shooting at a child—and surrender to police.
Tuff doesn't see herself as a hero, though. In Prepared for a Purpose, she writes: "All I did was serve as God's vessel. There is nothing special that enabled me to be a vessel for God… The story of the standoff at McNair Academy is not a story about heroism. It is a story about being a vessel for God's noble use."
A use we spoke about just after I thanked her.
One of the most interesting things to emerge from your book is that not long before you had your life threatened by Michael Hill, you were actually tempted to take your own life.
A year before this incident, my whole world came crashing down when my husband of 33 years left me for another woman. Just a year ago—six months before Michael Hill—I was so suicidal that his coming in that school and taking my life would've been okay for me. I wouldn't have had the strength to talk him down—or myself.
So I know that God brought him in the building at the right time at the right place for the right situation. For us both to be able to get a better outcome from it.
Do you know anything about his outcome? Have you talked to him since the incident?
I haven't talked to him or anything like this. But as much as this has changed my life, I know it's going to give him healing too.
Any plans or desire to meet with him?
If it comes down the line that God has me and Michael come back together, and I can help that young man, then I am willing to do whatever God needs me to do at that point.
So let's go back to that day. When I first heard the 911 tapes, what struck me was how clearly you saw Michael Hill's humanity. You never spoke to him as though he was a "monster." You seemed able to comprehend that this was a broken, sick person. How did the traumatic experiences you wrote about—your difficult childhood, your husband's infidelities, your just learning that morning that you were going to lose your home—play into this compassion?
Well, I think it came because I actually knew his pain. I'd been in that pain myself at the time. When my ex-husband left me after 33 years, it was like a death for me. And so that's where I understood what Michael was talking about. Even though he had an AK-47 in his hands, I went back to looking at his heart. And his heart had compassion and love in it. It didn't have an AK-47 for me.
At the end of your book, you write that the troubles of your life were "about the beauty of God's system of preparation and purpose." How did writing this book help you understand how the difficulties of your life were preparing you for this?
You know, in the process of life, you don't know that you're being prepared for something. When God actually took me through these stories from the beginning, I didn't know. From my issues with God, to my husband leaving me, to my son with multiple disabilities. And then Michael Hill was here with an AK-47? When you're going through something, you don't know that God is taking you through a process. You're just looking at it, saying, "Why me, God?"
But in it, I know now today that everything I have gone through in my life prepared me for that purpose. So that's why I wanted to write my book to help people to be able to see. It's not about an AK-47. It's not about a young man. It's about how we are normal, everyday people and how God can take an everyday person and change their life and destiny. God just used me to be able to help that young man.
Yes. God used you in an amazing way. This must profoundly change the way you sense God and the way you live day to day.
Oh, yeah. I wake up and one of the Scriptures I read is "I trust the Lord with all my heart. Lean not on my own understanding… and in all my ways acknowledge him and allow him to direct my path." And I do that every day. I don't get with my own agenda anymore. That's something I did for 47 years, but I don't do that any more. Because it's all about saving souls and changing lives today.
But this whole experience must also profoundly affect other areas of your life—in some negative ways.
Once you've had an AK-47 pointed straight at your face, you don't think like you used to. You look at and you see people differently; you see situations differently. When you walk in a room, you're looking around to make sure no one's coming in there. You just don't do things like you normally do.
But on the flip side, God is not a God of fear. And so I still have that balance with it. So it doesn't take away that I'm not afraid in some instances. Remember, it wasn't just [Michael Hill] going on. I had my husband leave me after 33 years for another woman. I had everything else from my lifetime.
When he came in with an AK-47, I was right there with him: angry, pained, distressed, wanting to kill myself. So everything that was going on. None of that goes away over night. There's still a process. Do I wake up joyful every day? No. Do I go to bed joyful every night? No. But I know it's a process so in that process I make sure that God is being seen and I know that he's going to protect me.
Special graces question: Ways that you've experienced some of those special graces?
God shows me grace every day. Before I was in the moment and wanting to commit suicide and now he's given me the grace to want to live. So he's showing me grace in a lot of ways. My son is now the vice president of my non-for-profit organization, which we just donated and gave a college scholarship. So I'm actually able to help kids with educational opportunities that otherwise I wouldn't be able to do that. You know, when you look at my book and everything else I'm doing to be able to go on my book tour. Now I'm getting to speak and do speeches to help others prepare for their purpose. So it's a lot of things that God has given me grace to do today. I know that if this would've happened a year ago, I wouldn't have been prepared for it. The outcome would've been totally different.
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