Antoinette Tuff says her faith guided her through the scariest moment of her life. On Aug. 20, 2013, she was working in the front office of the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., when a 20-year-old gunman stormed in with an AK-47 assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.
While on the phone with police, Tuff calmed the gunman down. More than 800 students and 100 employees were at the school that day; not one was injured. Later, she was publicly recognized by everyone from her pastor to President Obama.
Now she's out with a memoir, Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege. In it, she shares what was actually going on in her mind on that day and what led up to it.
On when the gunman came into the front office
I was actually helping a teacher. And so when he looked up, you know, I seen [sic] him dressed in all black. Didn't really think of it anyway. Really thought it was a joke, until he proceed [sic] out of his mouth to say, 'This is not a joke. This is for real,' and told us to go and let everyone know that this is not a joke.
On remaining calm on the outside
I was screaming and terrified on the inside. I didn't even know I was calm until everybody kept saying that. And so what I did is I went back to listen to the 911 tape to see exactly what I was saying and how calm I was. And to be honest with you, I didn't even recognize my own voice. And so I knew at that moment that it was God that guided me through that day.
All of us have a purpose in our life. And so God prepares us all for one. That day was very important for me that every word that proceeded out of my mouth at that point in time could be life or death, not only for me and Michael Hill [the gunman], but for everyone in that building. And so I knew that that was the moment that I had to make sure that everything that I heard God say to me, was what I came out of my mouth with.
On personal obstacles before the gunman arrived
I had just lost my husband after 33 years, a man that I had been with since I was 13 years old, a man that I put before myself, a man that I love before myself. What he did is he actually came and told me, months before that, that he was actually leaving to be with another woman. So this woman was just like Michael Hill. The only difference in her and Michael Hill was Michael Hill had a gun. And she didn't. But she still came and did more damage than he did. She came to steal, kill and destroy. And destroy my family.
Antoinette Tuff at NPR's DC headquarters.
Antoinette Tuff at NPR's DC headquarters.
I had just gotten a phone call to tell me that I was in the process of losing my car, and they wanted me to give them almost $15,000. And I knew that I didn't have that kind of money to give. But on the other side, I knew that I needed my car to be able to get to work every day. ... And it was overwhelming, because not only did I lose my husband at that time, I lost his salary too. So before I got there [the seat at the front office], I got that call and it was very overwhelming for me. I was in tears and screaming out, 'God help me!'
On why she never mentioned that Michael Hill is white, and she is African-American
Well you know, one thing God says, he doesn't say anything about color. He says 'love thy neighbor.' He doesn't say love thy neighbor because you white. He doesn't say love thy neighbor because you black. He doesn't say love thy neighbor because you purple, green or orange. ... And so for me, I didn't see color. To me, I seen [sic] someone that was hurting, and did not need me to judge or pass judgment on them, show anger or be frustrated or mad at him. But I seen [sic] a young man in an unstable condition mind needing me to show him love.
On whether she questioned her faith
No, 'cause I was too terrified to question him. I needed him to talk every minute he was there. I was calling on him more than I'm calling on him any day. I was like, 'God, what we going to do now [sic], what we going to do next, what do I say, how do I say it?' 'Cause remember now, he had already shot a bullet right there in front of my face, in the office, and it ricocheted. I'm sitting there literally watch [sic] him unfold mentally. You know, spraying bullets everywhere, loading up the magazines, you know loading bullets in his pockets everywhere. I'm actually seeing him self-destruct right there. So I knew that the power of my words had to be powerful.
On what she hopes people will learn from her story
To make sure that no matter what you're going through, remember that everybody is human. And to make sure that you prepare yourself for a purpose. And when God calls your number, make sure that your heart is open to receive what directions he give you [sic].
On healing from the pain
Do I feel more healed than I did on August the 20th? Yes. Am I completely there? No. You can't have an AK-47 in your face and lose a marriage after 33 years and don't feel [sic].