MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we speak with a woman who says her faith guided her through the scariest moment in her life. Antoinette Tuff was working at the front office of a Georgia elementary school last summer when a gunman stormed in with an AK-47 assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. The day could have ended tragically, as so many others have before and since. But it didn't because of what Antoinette Tuff was able to do that day. Here is a portion of that dramatic 911 call.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
ANTOINETTE TUFF: It's going to be alright, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK. And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up, and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life.
MARTIN: More than 800 students and 100 employees were at the school that day. Not one was injured. After that day, she's been publicly recognized by everybody from her pastor to her president - Obama. Now she's telling us what was actually going on in her mind on that fateful day, as well as what led right up to it in her memoir titled "Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege." And she is with us now in Washington, D.C. to tell us all about it. Welcome.
TUFF: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.
TUFF: Thank you so much, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here with you today.
MARTIN: If you could, take us back to that day on Tuesday, August 20. The young man's name is Michael Hill, and you had just taken your seat at the front desk. And what did you think was going on when you heard all this ruckus?
TUFF: Well, when he came through the door, I was actually helping a teacher. And so when he looked up, you know, I seen him dressed in all black - didn't really think about it - think of it anyway. Really thought it was a joke until he proceeded, 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.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think anybody who's heard the 911 tape or has heard you talk about it or has remembered the news accounts of the day was how you never lost your cool. I mean, you never - at least that we could hear. And I wondered in that moment, how you were able to do that.
TUFF: Well, to be honest with you, I was screaming and terrified on the inside. I didn't even know how calm I was 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 got me through that day because I couldn't even go back there and tell you what I said.
MARTIN: You had to go back and report it out for yourself, just like the rest of us did. You really have no real-time memory of it. In fact, you said, repeatedly when people say, oh, Antoinette, you're a hero, you'd say, no, I'm a vessel. What did you mean by that?
TUFF: All of us have a purpose in our life. And so God prepare us all for one. That day was very important for me that every word that proceeded out my mouth at that point in time could be life or death, not only for me and Michael Hill, 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.
MARTIN: You write in the book, quote, what happened in that room is not about me or even about the shooter. It's about how God guides us all on our journeys and prepares us for a purpose that is not always ours to know. Had you felt that way up to that point?
TUFF: No. I know God guides us, but at that point before Michael Hill came into the school, I was in a devastating state. 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 loved before myself. I know that I - I don't...
MARTIN: And when you say you lost him, it's not that he died, but that he left. He left the family.
TUFF: 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 destroyed my family.
MARTIN: You know, here's a spoiler alert. I'm just going to have to tell people this, that one of the amazing things that I learned in this book is that minutes before you sat down at that desk at the front of the Ronald McNair school to cover for the receptionist - you were covering for her on her lunch hour, you're the bookkeeper there - that you had gotten a devastating phone call literally minutes before you sat down at that desk. And so when you told Michael Hill that you were going through some things, too, you really, really were.
TUFF: Yes, I was. 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 so - no means of money to be able to get it. 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, I got that call. And it was very overwhelming for me. I was in tears and screaming out, God help me.
MARTIN: And yet - and still, you were able to sit down and make a connection with this young man. You were really talking to him as if he was one of the kids. You know, I have to ask, what kicked in? I mean, is that how he seemed to you?
TUFF: Well, remember now, that pain and hurt was already there for me from my own hurt and pain from what my ex-husband had did. So I had compassion and love for him because I knew that hurt and pain. I knew what it felt like. I knew that he was feeling something deep in his heart, that no matter what was going on in his life, he needed someone to show him love and not judge him. I wanted to be able to allow him to see that in spite of what he was doing, that God loved him because, see, back when I was going through mine - pain and hurt with my ex-husband, God sent me angels. He sent people to me at every moment that was overwhelming to me, whether it was a phone call, whether it was someone from - sending me something or saying here, you need to take this. You know, from giving me $2 in my hand, to whatever it was. And every moment that they gave me something or imparted into me was at a time of need. So I thank God for that at this point in time in my life.
MARTIN: In fact, you talked about that on the phone call. I just want to play another clip of the - that 911 call. You actually - and among the other amazing things that you did, you had the presence of mind, somehow, to put the call on hold but to do so in such a way that allowed the dispatcher to hear you. And so let me just play another part of that clip where you share some of what was going on with you. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
TUFF: You're going to be OK. I thought the same thing. You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now, I'm still working. And everything is OK.
MARTIN: But really wasn't. It really wasn't OK. It really wasn't. As I mentioned, what I found amazing again after I read your book, which I did not know until I read your book, was that literally minutes before this, you were facing yet another obstacle. And I also want to mention at this point that you brought your wonderful son here with you today. We're happy to have a chance to meet him. And you share in the book that among the other, you know, challenges, opportunities - is that, you know, your son is profoundly disabled and then had a health condition subsequently that robbed him of his sight, right? I believe. And he uses a wheelchair. He's well-educated. He's gone to college and so forth. But he is profoundly disabled and does need a level of care. So everything wasn't OK.
TUFF: No, it wasn't. But once again, I knew how to put on the face. That was what I was used to - loving others and not loving myself. And so today, I'm learning how to love myself in spite of it all because the pain didn't go anywhere. It's just now, how do you deal with the pain that's going to be healthy for you?
MARTIN: You know, one of the other things I found interesting is that you never once mentioned in the book and have not once mentioned to this point that Michael Hill is white, and you're African-American. Now other people have pointed this out - never mentioned that he's white. And I'm just wondering, did you not notice? Is it not important? And why do you think other people care?
TUFF: 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 'cause you white. He didn't say love thy neighbor 'cause you black. He didn't say love thy neighbor 'cause you purple, green or orange. He says love thy neighbor. And so for me, I didn't see color. To me, I seen 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 a young man in an unstable-condition mind needing me to show him love.
MARTIN: You know, you could be forgiven if you did not - after all you were going through yourself - didn't have any love left to share. I mean, we've already mentioned the fact that you had just learned right before - right before the incident started that you were in some serious financial trouble which was owing to the breakup of your marriage, which was not by your choice. And that, that was not - you didn't have the easiest time before that either. I mean, one of the things that you share in the book is some very painful memories of bouncing around without a permanent home as a young girl, your parents' marriage breaking up and really having to, you know, kind of fend for yourself at such a young age. And I just am wondering, you know, where that repository of love in you - how do you think it survived?
TUFF: I think God used all of those situations in my life to prepare me for that moment and even though for me, it was hard, very, very, hard. It was very, very painful what my dad did - what he did. It was painful with my mom. It was painful with my ex-husband 'cause that was the man I thought that I was going to be married to until death did us part and that we would be buried beside each other, go to heaven together. What it does show me is that in spite of it all, God prepared me for that purpose, for that moment, to go through everything I went through to make sure that that young man's life was saved and so was everybody else in that building that day.
MARTIN: Did you ever question your faith through this ordeal?
TUFF: 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? 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 watching 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. And so I knew that the power of my words had to be powerful.
MARTIN: Just to let people know, you are indeed human. And that your powers were truly tested and that just for people who have any doubt that you really were afraid, I just want to play just a little short clip from the end of that 911 call when all has been brought to a conclusion.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
TUFF: OK, he just got his phone. That's all he got is his phone.
POLICE: Get on the ground. Do not move. On the ground. Stay on the ground.
TUFF: It's just him. OK. I'm going to tell you something, baby, I ain't never been so scared in all the days of my life.
911 DISPATCHER: But you did great.
TUFF: Oh, Jesus.
DISPATCHER: You did great.
TUFF: Oh, God.
MARTIN: You did do great. It's hard to listen to that without bringing back what you went through. Can you listen to it?
TUFF: It's hard. It is. But I know that at that moment it was OK for me to let down for a moment.
MARTIN: How are you doing now?
TUFF: I'm doing great. I still have my moments where, you know, you still go back and forth, you know, of everything that's going on because unfortunately it's not a microwave. You can't push one minute and it's over, and you forget it. There's still times where you hurt. But on the other side of it, God is good. And I know that He's going to push me past this pain also. I'm actually going out and speaking nationally and internationally now. Through all of this, we have a GoFundMe account that people from all over the world have donated money. And so this weekend, we was able to give a scholarship to a college student to be able to go to school at The Trumpet Awards.
MARTIN: Were you able to save your car? I must say, at the end of the book, the thing I found myself preoccupied with was the fact the you'd gotten this terrible phone call right before all this unfolded where they gave you - what - something like 10 days to come up with the money. Were you able to save your car?
TUFF: I'm actually unfortunately still in negotiations of getting all that settled now.
MARTIN: All that - after all of that.
MARTIN: That's amazing.
MARTIN: What message would you want us to draw from this, what happened to you and all that you were a part of? What would you want us to learn?
TUFF: 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.
MARTIN: What about people who don't believe as you do? As you know, this country's very big, very diverse. People believe lots of different things. Everybody doesn't share your faith perspective. Do you feel that you have a message for people who don't have your grounding in faith?
TUFF: Well, I can say, yes, I do. And the reason why say that is I had someone to actually donate to my GoFundMe account. And then the first paragraph of the e-mails stated that they did not believe. And they went on to tell me why they didn't, which I'm OK with that. But the second paragraph said that they were going to go and donate and give me some money for my GoFundMe account for the students. And so for me, when I look at that - wherever your faith is, that at the end of the day, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
MARTIN: There been a number of shootings since what happened to you. And I just wondered, do you have any words of comfort for other people when similar situations did not end as this one did peacefully?
TUFF: Well, what I would say is allow God to heal your heart. We don't know why God chooses who He chooses and uses who He choose to use. But in spite of what all that He does and He allowed to be done, to remember that at the end of the day, He has a purpose for it.
MARTIN: Do you feel healed?
TUFF: Do I feel more healed than I did on August the 20? Yes. Am I completely there? No. You can't have a AK-47 in your face and lose a marriage after 33 years and don't feel. Yeah.
MARTIN: Antoinette Tuff is author of the new memoir "Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege." And she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.
TUFF: You are so welcome. It was a pleasure being here.