Antoinette Tuff had not lacked hardships in her life. As a child, she endured homelessness and abandonment by her parents. In adulthood, she attempted suicide after learning that her husband was leaving her for another woman. But what Tuff didn’t realize until August 20, 2013, is that her pain had prepared her for a purpose – a purpose that allowed her to save the lives of hundreds of children and become a channel of God’s grace to a mentally disturbed young man.
In 2018, Tuff’s story was dramatized in the Christopher Award-winning TV movie “Faith Under Fire.” She also shared her story in the memoir “Prepared For a Purpose,” so she joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss the events that changed her life.
Tuff began August 20th like any other day: with prayer. But despite her faith, she wasn’t in the best place emotionally speaking as she headed to her bookkeeping job at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, that morning.
Two days prior, Tuff had attempted suicide – not for the first time – out of despair about the end of her marriage. The husband with whom she had raised two children, including a son with multiple disabilities, blindsided her by having an affair and leaving her in 2012.
In addition, Tuff owed the bank $14,000, and didn’t know how she was going to repay it. That just made the chaos of the recently-begun school year even harder to deal with. Nevertheless, Tuff went to help out in the school’s front office because everyone else was busy. As a parent was leaving the office, he held open the door for a young man who wanted to enter.
That young man turned out to be Michael Hill, who was mentally ill, off his medication, and carrying an AK-47 and over 500 rounds of ammunition in his shoulder bag and backpack.
When he took the weapon out in front of Tuff, Hill did NOT say “You are all going to die today.”
He said, “WE are all going to die today.”
Though shocked and scared, Tuff picked up on this right away, noting that he was suicidal. And though he was threatening her life and the lives of the 800 children in the school, she never simply saw him as a gunman.
Tuff explained, “I saw him as 20-year-old young man standing in front of me, that was younger than my children, and saying to me that he hadn’t taken his medicine, and that he should just kill himself. Two days before that, my principal and assistant principal at school…helped save my life. So to me, I knew that I needed to help save his life. I was saying to myself…’God, what do I say? How do I say it? Every word that proceeds out of my mouth right now is life or death, not just for me, but for all of us that are involved. So give me the words to say – no more no less – that this young man may be able to see You in the process of it all.'”
Thankfully, the doors leading to the remainder of the school from the front office were locked, so Hill couldn’t just impulsively walk through them. But he tried to show he meant business by shooting off a couple of rounds in the office, as well as at the police that had gathered outside after he told Tuff to call the press and 911 so he could get attention for what he was doing.
Though there were a few moments when Tuff could have escaped, she chose not to. She explained, “I knew that if I got out of my seat to go, then innocent lives would have been taken, and then he would have taken his own life. So for me that day, it was important that everybody went home to their families, including the gunman.”
Remarkably, Tuff managed to act with compassion, confidence, and control in the midst of the fear, threats, and uncertainty. She began revealing to Hill the troubles she had faced in her life, including her suicide attempts and the fact that her son Derrick was born with disabilities that affected his sight, hearing, and ability to walk. But Tuff’s purpose in discussing her son wasn’t to elicit sympathy from Hill, but rather to convey to him that challenges can be met and overcome.
Tuff told me, “I always put [Derrick] in programs, sent him to transitional school, so he could know how to take care of himself, how to cook and do all that…My son was the one who helped save my life also those times that I wanted to commit suicide…He left college to come home and visit, because he heard what was going on with his dad and me. And he never left. He stayed at home because he said, ‘If I leave, my mom’s going to die.’…Today, my son is a wonderful husband. He’s a wonderful dad. I have two grandchildren, and they love their daddy…I wanted my son to be able to know that, whatever you lack in life, you can change it.”
Tuff’s message to Hill about God’s love, self-empowerment, and ending this standoff without any bloodshed finally got through to him. He surrendered to police without a single person being injured or killed.
Tuff was hailed as a hero around the country, but she says the incident helped save her own life as well. It gave her a different perspective, so she could see that her relationship with her husband had been co-dependent and unhealthy. Through therapy, she got to know herself better and discovered that she didn’t need her husband to validate her existence. “God loves me unconditionally,” she said, “and He validates me first.”
In addition, Tuff created a nonprofit called “Kids on the Move for Success” in which she helps kids who attend the same school in which she saved lives. She said, “I launched my own literacy program and mentoring program there…[so kids] realize that they can achieve what seems to be impossible for them. Our kids in our demographics, they are homeless kids, they’re foster kids, and they all live in at-risk communities. So I wanted to make sure that we could impact their lives, so that they can see something different.”
Having experienced the temptation toward suicide first-hand, Tuff is acutely aware that even children are killing themselves nowadays. To combat that plague, she created a Youth Trailblazing team in which young people receive guidance and support to help prevent suicides in the school and community, as well as address the subject of gun violence.
Tuff also does presentations for businesses, churches and other organizations, teaching them to deal with difficult situations through what she calls “Tuff Tactics.” But despite this mode of self-employment, Tuff knows who she really works for.
She concluded, “I’ve got a new boss. My new boss is God…When I get up every morning, I don’t know how God is going to do it, but I know my assignment is changing lives and saving souls for the kingdom – whether I’m doing that in my professional speaking…or if I’m in the elementary school where I do my mentoring program and literacy program, or I have Youth Trailblazers and we’re talking about gun violence and safety in our schools and communities. I know that no matter which area that I’m in, what I’m going to do is change lives and save souls for the kingdom. It’s a wonderful job if you’re ever looking for one. That’s the greatest reward.”
(To listen to my full interview with Antoinette Tuff, click on the podcast link):