When a gunman walked into an elementary school near Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday, Antoinette Tuff, a school clerk in the same building as the gunman, did not scream, plead, or call for help. She did not even duck under her desk for cover. Antoinette saw in the gunman’s eyes that he was prepared to kill any child or adult in his path, and she asked him his name. The gunman was reluctant at first to engage Antoinette in conversation as he reloaded his gun, insisting over and over that this was “not a joke.” But eventually he told Antoinette his name, and this is how she responded to the man that was about to kill her:
“His name ended up being my mother’s maiden name, and I told him, we could be family members.”
This was the beginning of an hour-long conversation that ultimately saved the life of every child, staff, and police officer at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy that day.
In an interview with ABC News, Antoinette recalls their conversation in detail. In an incredible display of empathy, Antoinette began telling 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill her story: how she had experienced extremely low points in her life too; how she has at times felt alone and unloved; how hard it was on her losing her husband after 33 years and raising a disabled child. As Michael wavered between being contrite and being vengeful – at times even shooting at the ground or at police outside – Antoinette reiterated to him that he didn’t have to die today, that it wasn’t too late because he hadn’t yet done any harm, and that she “understood how he was feeling.”
It was at this point that Michael began opening up to Antoinette, telling her he hadn’t taken his medication and that he was sick. Throughout the next hour, in a room with just the two of them, Antoinette was able to persuade him to lay down his weapons and give himself over to the police. He even instructed Antoinette to tell everybody over the school intercom that he was sorry. The police took him away, and 870 evacuated pre-kindergarten to fifth-graders were delivered safely to their families. All because Antoinette was brave enough to speak with him.
But Antoinette was more than just brave, clever, and compassionate. Above all else, Antoinette was human, and her ability to recognize the humanity in Michael and be recognized in return is what saved hundreds of lives that day. A man with a gun stood in front of her, and all Antoinette could think was:
“I see myself and my kids. I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know anything about him, but I loved him.”
We at Invisible Children believe storytelling can change the world, and Antoinette is living proof of that. This, my friends, is a perfect example of the power of storytelling. I have no words big enough to convey the greatness of what Antoinette did on Tuesday, but that’s just as well because she tells her own story better than anyone could. Watch her full interview below (and prepare to be speechless):