Letting God Speak Through Her

Letting God Speak Through Her

She could have run. Instead she talked, and more than 800 students were spared.

Antoinette Tuff

August 20, 2013. I started the day in darkness and went in search of light. Literally and spiritually. Same as every morning lately, ever since my husband–the man I’d loved since we were kids–left me. At one point I felt so hopeless and broken I tried to end my life, but God saved me from myself.

Now I was leaning on my faith harder than ever. I got up in the dark, 5:00 a.m., and went down to the kitchen. Turned on the light, sat at the table and talked to God, told him what was going on in my head and my heart, the questions and doubts I had.

Then I sat in silence and listened. That was something I’d been working on these past weeks, clearing my mind so that even when my world was crumbling, God’s words could come through. I ended my quiet time reading the Twenty-third Psalm.

I fixed a hot breakfast–bacon, eggs and toast–for my 22-year-old son, Derrick. I could hear him pulling himself down the stairs. He was born with a neurological disorder that’s left him legally blind and unable to walk.

Yet if you spend just a little time with him, what you notice aren’t his disabilities but his God-given gifts: his lively mind, his singing, his irrepressible joy in life. He was making his way through college, following in the footsteps of his smart older sister, LaVita, who was in law school.

Derrick climbed into his wheelchair and rolled over to the table. “I gotta get to the school,” I said. “I put your lunch and dinner in the fridge.” We liked to eat together but by the time I got home–I’d been working three jobs to make ends meet–it would be late.

“Thanks, Momma,” Derrick said, hugging me quick. “Love you.”

“I love you too, baby.”

I pulled into the parking lot at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, the Atlanta elementary school where I’m the bookkeeper, and was in my office by 7:00 a.m. I paid some vendors’ bills, updated the school database, did a bit of paperwork.

The principal stopped by and asked if I could cover for the receptionist from 12:30 to 1:00. No problem.

I was about to head up to the front office when a call came in on my cell phone. A woman from my bank. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

In all the upheaval of our marriage breaking up, some payments weren’t made, and $14,000 was due immediately, or I’d lose our house.

I hung up and wept. Somehow I had to keep a roof over Derrick’s head. What in the world are we going to do now, Lord? I asked.

My office phone rang. The receptionist, wondering where I was. I pulled myself together and went to the front office. I took the desk behind the counter. Belinda, one of our new teachers, stopped to ask my advice about health insurance.

Just then the door swung open. A short, stocky man. Black T-shirt, pants, shoes, backpack. Around my son’s age. But not like him. Not like him at all. He held a long black gun, a rifle, one hand on the barrel, the other on the trigger.

Must be a prank, I thought.

Then I saw his eyes.

Eyes don’t lie, and his were burning. “This is not a joke!” he yelled. “We are all going to die today!”

Belinda stifled a gasp. All the man had to do was run through the side door of the office, take a few steps down the hall, and he’d find classrooms full of vulnerable kids. There were more than 800 children at McNair, 250 on this floor alone.

The man waved his rifle. “You need to do exactly what I tell you,” he said. He looked at Belinda. “You. Go tell everyone in the building I’m here.”

Belinda glanced at me.

“Go on,” I said. “Do what he says.” Belinda went out the back door to the teachers’ lounge. I heard her yell, “Intruder alert!” That’s the phrase we’ve been trained to use if there’s a security breach. Then came the commotion of a room emptying in a hurry–chairs scraping, shoes scurrying.

The gunman paced like he wanted to bust out of his skin. “All this movement,” he said. “Tell them to stop!”

“They’re just doing what you told them,” I said. “Don’t get alarmed.” My heart was thumping, but my voice sounded calm and assured, the way I’d read from Psalms this morning. I will fear no evil: for thou art with me...

He cracked open the side door and pointed his rifle down the hallway. I saw Russ, our media specialist, scrambling for the media room. He’s going to kill Russ, I thought. Then he’s going to kill the children.

“Come back in here,” I told him. “It’s okay.”

He listened. He lowered his rifle and closed the door.

I understood the gravity of my situation. There was a good chance I wouldn’t see Derrick and LaVita again, but every word I spoke could mean the difference between life and death for someone else in the building. The longer I kept the gunman with me, the more children would get to safety.

“What is your name?” I asked.

No response. No eye contact. Just pacing and muttering.

The front door opened. Lou, our cafeteria manager, sauntered in, a big smile on his face like always. He saw the rifle and froze. The gunman aimed at the floor, fired. The bullet ricocheted across the room. A bitter, smoky smell filled the air.

“You.” He pointed at Lou. “Tell everyone this is happening.”

“Do what he says,” I told Lou. “Go.”

“Get on the intercom,” he ordered me. “Let everyone know this is for real.”

I grabbed the microphone. It shook in my hands. But oddly my voice was steady. “This is not a drill,” I said over the intercom. “We have an intruder in the building. Everybody stay calm, and everything is going to be all right.”

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