Tough Tuff saved lives with compassion

Published 12:10 am Saturday, August 24, 2013

I would like to think that I could be as tough as Antoinette Tuff.

Tuff is the school clerk at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, the elementary school outside of Atlanta who convinced a gunman with plans for a massacre to put down his weapons and surrender Tuesday.

The gunman, who arrived at the school with an AK 47-style rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition, told her that he didn’t have a reason to live and knew he was going to die.

Tuff was calm and compassionate. Yes, that.

Confronted with the same circumstance, I hope I would have the presence of mind to try to negotiate. But I would have been far more likely to have talked to him about the innocent children who had their whole lives ahead of them, the parents who would be devastated, etc. You know, reasonable arguments.

But as a good friend often says, you can’t argue reason with an unreasonable person. And reasonable people don’t show up at elementary schools with personal arsenals. On some level, Antoinette Tuff must have known that.

Instead, she talked to him about her own struggles, including losing her husband and a suicide attempt. If you’ve listened to the 911 tapes, her compassion is audible.

“We’re not gonna hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.”

She told the 20-year-old man, Michael, that she loved him and would pray for him. Michael had a long history of mental illness.

“So many of the great spiritual leaders the world honors, from Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Jesus to the Buddha to the Dalai Lama and more, taught the spirituality of compassion and nonviolence as the best way to end violence and increase peace,” Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wrote in a column in The Washington Post about the spiritual weapons Tuff used to save countless lives.

Tuff has been hailed as a hero. Just before going on Anderson Cooper: 360 Thursday night, she got a phone call from President Obama. She said she is anything but.

“I’m not the hero. I was terrified,” she said. Before she became a household name, she was trying to raise $1,500 on the web site gofundme for a program for inner-city youth. By Friday night, she had raised almost $75,000.

But even as she was interviewed three days later, Tuff still expressed her concern for Michael and whether he would get the mental health help he needed.

Yes, I hope I would be as tough as she, but also as compassionate.