Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Antoinette Tuff.
Paul Ingles: What do you remember about this morning in August of 2013?
Antoinette Tuff: Well on August the 20th of 2013 Paul, I got up just like anybody else, a normal day for me. I got and had my praying and devotional time with God that morning and fixed my son his breakfast, lunch and dinner before I left to go to the elementary school where I worked. My husband of 33 years, the man that I had been with since I was 13 years old had told me once before that he was having an affair with another woman, so during my devotional time, I am sitting there crying out to God to ask him what to do and how to do that.
Ingles: You were actually feeling like you were in the middle of your own emotional crisis at this time in your life.
Tuff: I had already tried to commit suicide once during that time, so I was already in the middle of a crisis myself, not feeling like there was anything worth living for and so as I’m sitting there having time and trying to get myself together so that I can be able to feed my son who is multiple disabled. He’s blind and in a wheel chair and he Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and for those who do not know what that means, it’s when the nerves in your body are deteriorating and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Ingles: How old is your boy?
Tuff: My son is 22 years old.
Ingles: So you were trying to him ready to go and yourself ready to go and you head on into your school that day.
Tuff: Now while I’m at work my principal came in and asked me if I could fill in for the secretary for lunch and so as I’m sitting there, I’m trying to figure out what to do, trying close out things and everything to get the year started.
In comes a phone call. It’s the bank saying to me that I had seven days to come up with $14,000 or I would lose my car. Here I am now all in emotions again and I get another phone call and it’s the secretary. She wants to know where I am because I am now late to come and relieve her for lunch.
As I go to relieve her, a teacher comes to the door and asked me if I could help her with her paperwork. As I was telling her that I needed to go to the office to relieve the secretary, we go up there and then she goes and we sit down and I start helping her with her paperwork as the secretary leaves. As we sit in there, in comes the gunman, dressed in all black, a disturbed young man letting us all to know that we’re going to die today. He comes in with his AK47 already drawn with his book bag on his back, unstable in all his ways with fear and death in his eyes.
Ingles: At this point, are you the only one in the office with him?
Tuff: No, I’m in there with a teacher, so he now goes and tells the teacher to go and let everyone know that he’s in the building. So the teacher leaves and she goes through the teacher’s lounge that’s on the other side of the wall. The gunman didn’t know that there were teachers in there and students in there doing their planning time, so there is all this commotion and he now he gets enraged and upset.
He goes now to the main door that leads out to the school where everyone is and he draws his weapon and gets ready to start shooting. I said to him, “No, come back in here. Come back in here. They’re only doing what you told them to do. You told her to go out and let everybody know that you’re here and so they’re only doing that.” He wanted to actually start shooting, so I’m telling him, “No, we’re not going to do that today. Come back in here. Come back in here.” So he comes back into the room with me, agitated and he now gets a chair and props open the front door and he goes out and starts shooting bullets all in the community because he’s angry because I did not allow him to shoot in the school.
Then he came back in going to and fro, angry and in comes the cafeteria manager. He came in but he did not see the gunman. He came in and does his routine to put his things into the mail for the delivery and the gunman told him to get behind the counter with me. He doesn’t move fast. He moves very slowly and the gunman got agitated and he fired his first shot feet away from us and the bullets are ricocheting everywhere.
As I’m sitting there I’m praying, “God, please help us. Don’t let these bullets hit anybody. Let us be able to be okay.” I’m having a conversation with God the whole time about what I should do and say because I know that every word that proceeds out of my mouth can be life or death for me, over 870 students, parents and teachers and even the gunman on that day.
As we’re now standing there and he’s going to and fro, the cafeteria manager now runs behind the counter where I am holding his heart and the gunman told him to go and let everybody know that he’s in the building and as the cafeteria manager leaves, [the gunman] goes back outside and shoots in the community again.
He came back inside and told me to call 911, the TV station, to let everybody know that he is in the building. As I’m talking to 911 he now tells me to hang up and call the news station. I couldn’t even think of a news station so I asked him, “Do you know [the name of a news station]?” And he said yes so I said, “Okay, I’ll look it up on the internet.” So I called the news station and he’s now telling me demands of what he wants me to do and what he wants me to tell them. He told me to hang up the phone, but what I did was I actually hung up the phone from the news station and had the 911 operator on hold. I had the phone where he could not see it and took it off of hold.
Ingles: You’re allowing the operator to hear the conversation.
Tuff: Right, I’m allowing the 911 operator to have eyes and ears on the inside so that she can know what’s actually going on and as he’s doing this and as he’s saying things to me giving me demands. I’m allowing them to know what he’s saying and doing. He’s has now emptied his gun [outside] so he goes and gets his book bag. I didn’t know what was in the book bag at first. I didn’t see it. He got the book bag and sat in front of me and pulled out all of these bullets. I had never seen bullets before. He pulled all of these bullets. He pulled out all of the magazines and he started loading them right there in front of me.
Ingles: Now Antoinette, let me insert a question here. You’ve been with this fellow now for a number of minutes and those things were going really fast and even in retrospect were you getting some impressions about whether he was vulnerable enough to be approached, to be talked with? What were your impressions about his resolve and his state of mind? Were you making some calculations about that?
Tuff: No because he did not allow me to know that I was reaching him. He did not allow me to know that he was listening to me. He didn’t actually communicate with me at all. The only thing he did was continue to give me demands and all I did was just continue to talk to him and ask God what to say and how to say it and then make sure that I was saying exactly what I thought God was telling me to say at that moment. He didn’t allow me to know that what I was saying was reaching him at all.
Ingles: So you were engaging him and he’s about to reload. So then what happened?
Tuff: So then he’s reloading the gun and then he puts all the bullets and all of the magazines in his pockets. So now he’s loading up to go and do WWII.
Then he goes outside and he actually now starts shooting at the police officers and now they start shooting back at him, so it becomes now cowboys and Indians. I mean bullets were flying everywhere and all you could hear was just spraying of bullets everywhere. So I am actually sitting by a window and so I told him, “Come back in here. Bullets don’t have no name. They can shoot me just like they’re shooting you. Come back in here. Come back in here.” But he wasn’t listening. Then he was bleeding and I don’t know if he was bleeding because the bullets shot him, I don’t know if he’s bleeding from the glass. I’m not sure what he was bleeding from. He finally came back in the room where I am. He’s mad and he’s angry and he’s just walking to and fro. I’m like okay, it’s going to be okay.
Now I’m telling him my story. I started telling him how my husband left me after 33 years and how, in spite of it all, I’m okay today. I let him know that my son was disabled, but I’m doing okay and he’s okay. “Look at me now. In spite of it all, everything is okay,” and everything was going to be okay for him too.
Ingles: Antoinette, is he paying attention to you? Has he stopped? Is he looking you in the eyes? What’s happening?
Tuff: No, he never gave eye contact. He never responded back to me when I was saying things to him. He never did any of that. All he did the whole time was give me demands.
Ingles: So you’re doing a monologue when he’s not talking. You’re just filling the space with your story as much as possible.
Tuff: Right. I’m just telling him about myself and what I’m going through and how I tried to commit suicide myself and how I didn’t think life was worth living. So he went over and sat in the chair and said, “I’m going to go to jail. I shot at the police officers.” Then he took the gun and was going to shoot himself. I said to him, “You’re not doing that today. We’re not going to do that. No, that’s not going to happen.” So he gets agitated and he starts walking and walking and I just told him, “I love you. Just give yourself up. It’s going to be okay.” So he said to me, “You don’t understand. I shot at the police officers” and I’ve done this and I’ve done that and I told him, “It’s okay.” He told me that he hadn’t taken his medicine and he’s going to go to jail for a long time and he’s on probation and everything and I’m like, “It’s okay. None of it matters. It’s all going to be okay.”
In the midst of me talking to him and saying all that to him, he went over and pulled all of the bullets out of his pockets, the magazines and he took his gun and everything, including the bottle of water that he brought in there with and put it all on the counter beside me. He went and laid on the floor prostrate to give himself up and let the police come in and get him.
Ingles: You just kept saying it would be alright. You didn’t tell him to lay on the floor. There was some turning point where he decided that he was going to give himself up. Can you remember that transformation in a detailed way?
Tuff: No, I don’t remember. I didn’t tell him to lie down or anything like that. He just really went over there and lay down. I didn’t know he was going to lie down. That was just something that he started doing. I was just sitting there praying the whole time. I don’t remember what words I said to him. I was sitting in the chair so I wasn’t moving. I don’t know what it was that I said that actually resonated with him for him to just give himself up. I don’t know what that was. I just saw him start putting the things on the counter beside me.
Ingles: Can you remember what you were feeling or even in retrospect how it felt to feel like something had changed and that this might not end up as a tragic story?
Tuff: A part of me hoped that I would get out, but another part of me, when you’re seeing someone unstable (he had already told me had hadn’t taken his medicine) I knew what kind of state he was in. I was sitting there watching him unfold himself and so I didn’t know if I was going to get out. I hoped that I was going to get out, but I hoped that I was going to get out. I didn’t know how the story was actually going to end and then in the midst of it, you don’t even look at how the story is going to end. The only thing for me that I was focusing on was that at the end of the day, all of us, including him would be able to go home to our families.
Ingles: I can tell your Christian faith is very strong and I wonder though as you go around the world, I’m thinking that you probably still do want to reach people of other faiths. How do you reach across the many different faiths as you tell this story and as you encourage people to realize their potential and their options?
Tuff: Well we all have different levels of what we look at in our different beliefs, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, we all still have the same thing in mind; to make sure that we do the right thing at the right time. It doesn’t make any difference who you are and what you do, but that you go reach forth to know that there is a higher power that’s greater than you are and that’s the whole story. It doesn’t make a difference who you are and what you serve, at the end of the day, who gets the glory?
Ingles: People don’t understand why they’re suffering. What have you learned about that through this experience of your life and this dramatic moment?
Tuff: What I would say to people is to go and get my book because I talk about all of my suffering from the beginning of my childhood all the way up to that incident to allow people to know that everything that goes in your life; suffering, overwhelming moments, desperate moments, trials and tribulations, everything is for a purpose. I would not change anything from my son being disabled to my ex-husband leaving to the abuse from my dad and everything that I’ve gone through all over my life. I would not change any one of them and the reason why I wouldn’t is because every last one of those moments prepared me for the August 20, 2013. Michael Hill came into that elementary school a disturbed young man looking for hope, but feeling hopeless, needing someone to talk him down, to show him compassion and love. God used me for that day and I would not change any moment of it. As much as I love my ex-husband, as much as I wanted my family to be together, we had been together for 33 years, I had been with him longer than I had been by myself, so that was all that I knew, so that was why I tried to take my life, thinking that there was no way, but I know now today that every last moment of it helped me to save 870 children’s lives, parents and teachers that on August 20th and if I had to, I would do it all over again just for that moment for everyone to go back to their families to be able to know that everything is going to be alright.
Ingles: So when other people are facing these hardships, it sounds like you’re saying …
Tuff: Push past the pain. Push past the pain.
Ingles: Shrug the shoulders and say that there is a reason for this. I don’t know yet, but I’m going to hang in there and find out.
Tuff: Right because at the end of it, you have to push past the pain. It doesn’t make the pain go anywhere. See, for me, I’ve got pain every day. I’ve got things that I’m up against. I’ve got good days and I’ve got bad days, but at the end of the day, whose life am I going to change and whose soul am I going to save? I have to push past the pain despite what I feel like because at the end of the day, it’s going to help someone else along the way. It doesn’t make it easy for me, it’s just that at the end of the day when God calls your name or your number, will you be ready and can he use you.
Ingles: Since you’ve faced this yourself, I feel like I can ask this question. Suicide is not an option?
Tuff: Suicide is not. Suicide is not an option because I know when I was going through my moments, it just felt like that was the only way out for me. I didn’t know any other way, but God spared my life because he knew the end and the beginning and so I would tell anybody that seems to feel hopeless to just know and remember that there is hope and that God loves them and so do I.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Jorge Rubio, Nonviolent Communication Facilitator.
The purpose of Nonviolent Communication(SM) (NVC) is to strengthen our ability to inspire compassion from others and to respond compassionately to others and to ourselves. NVC guides us to reframe how we express ourselves and hear others by focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.
We are trained to make careful observations free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others, and to identify and clearly articulate what we are wanting in a given moment. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed, rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.
While it is taught through the use of a concrete model, and is referred to as “a process of communication” or a “language of compassion,” Nonviolent Communication is more than a process or a language. As our cultural conditioning often leads our attention in directions unlikely to get us what we want, NVC serves as an ongoing reminder to focus our attention on places that have the potential to yield what we are seeking—a flow between ourselves and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.
Founded on language and communication skills that enable us to remain human, even under trying conditions, Nonviolent Communication contains nothing new: all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another—and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.
The use of NVC does not require that the persons with whom we are communicating be literate in NVC or even motivated to relate to us compassionately. If we stay with the principles of NVC, with the sole intention to give and receive compassionately, and do everything we can to let others know this is our only motive, they will join us in the process and eventually we will be able to respond compassionately to one another. While this may not happen quickly, it is our experience that compassion inevitably blossoms when we stay true to the principles and process of Nonviolent Communication.
—Adapted from “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion” by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. PuddleDancer Press