As a teacher, I tend to change the channel or radio station when the news turns to issues related to schooling and education. It is difficult to listen to people discuss aspects of my daily experience as if they were a part of it. When a news story involves an act of violence in a school or a natural disaster wreaking devastation on children and school employees, I am almost less likely to listen. It is too painful to think about what that would be like for me, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students.
When major news networks began playing a recording of suburban Atlanta school employee Antoinette Tuff’s 911 call reporting a shooter in her school’s building on Tuesday, I almost turned off the TV. Then, I heard Tuff’s calm voice interacting with the shooter as though as he was any distraught child in the office needing extra attention. I started to listen.
What I heard was a beautiful example of one human lovingly engaging another in an act of compassion. As Tuff spoke to the 911 operator on behalf of the would-be shooter, Michael Brandon Hill, she did much more than relay messages. Instead, she talked with Hill. As he told her he did not care if he died because he had nothing to live for, she encouraged him with her own story, showing him she was really no different than him. She told Hill about working through her own “stuff,” humbling herself in a manner reminiscent of Christ’s making himself low. She explained she had a son with multiple disabilities and how just a year ago she attempted suicide after being left by her husband. After she persuaded Hill to lay down his weapons, she told him she loved him and was proud of him.
The praise for Tuff’s negotiating and for the school employees who herded the children to safety will subside. The commendations will soon be contrasted by the usual ill-contrived criticisms of people dedicated to education. Critics do not realize actions like Tuff’s are ones we in education engage in every day: talking our students down from the lies the world tells them about their lack of worth and the need for revenge and leading them towards a learned, caring discourse. We do not need the media’s commendations, their criticism, or even their strange suggestions about giving teachers guns in order to better protect our students. We continue to do what we have always done with what we already have: a knowledge about instruction and an experience with children that guides us in the complicated situations we encounter on a regular basis.
Antoinette Tuff was not armed. Neither, as far as we know, were any other school employees — with firearms, at least. Tuff was, however, prepared with the demeanor of someone who works in an environment with children and of a woman fully aware of her own brokenness. When anyone — from pundit to community member — suggests we need more guns in schools to protect from other guns, I hope two thoughts come into their minds. One, I hope they recognize the statistics that schools are still one of the safest place for our children to be, especially among educators and staff members who care deeply about the children’s well-being. Two, I hope they think of Antoinette Tuff and the way her heart and her words conveyed more saving power than molded metal and gunpowder ever could. She stopped violence in its tracks.
Emily A. Dause is a public school teacher and a freelance writer. Her writing appears in PRISM Magazine (prismmagazine.org), Teaching Children Mathematics, RELEVANTmagazine.com, and her blog, sliversofhope.blogspot.com.