On Tuesday a man opened fire at a Georgia elementary school; he was armed with an AK-47 and five hundred rounds of ammunition. The shooter, Michael Brandon Hill, barricaded himself with school employees in the school’s front office and fired around six shots from inside the school towards the police officers as they approached.
Miraculously, no one was injured, and Hill surrendered. Soon afterwards the recordings of the 911 call between the school book keeper Antoinette Tuff and the emergency operator revealed the mystery of Hill’s surrender. Tuff was in the front office closed in with the gunman; she stayed on the phone for almost 25 minutes with the emergency operator as she tried to convince Michael to put down the gun and simultaneously relay his requests to the police outside the school.
Antoinette told the 911 operator that Hill said he “should have just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this because he is not on his medication. He said he don’t care if he dies, he don’t have nothing to live for.” In the background of the call, Hill can be heard intermittently saying “tell them to stop bothering me” and “tell them to stand down now!” Hill told Tuff that he was on probation, and that he had played the drums for the children at McNair Discovery Learning Center on a school trip before.
But what stands out in the recordings of the 911 call is the depth of Tuff’s empathy (and courage!) even when she is facing a man with a gun pointed at her: “Don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years. I’ve got a son that’s mentally disabled. We all got something in life.”
“Okay,” she said, “they can come in now. He needs to go to the hospital. He’s laying on the floor. He’s got everything out of his pockets. Everything is sitting here on the counter, so all we need to do is they can just come in, and I’ll buzz them in.
“I’m proud of you, it’s a good thing you are giving up. No, Michael, we’re not going to hate you. You’re doing a great job. It’s going to be alright. But I just want you to know that I love you. We all go through something in life. I thought the same thing as you. I tried to commit suicide after my husband left me. But look at me now, I’m alright. I’m working and everything. Everything’s going to be alright. Guess what Michael? My last name was Hill too. My mom was a Hill.”
She spoke to him like he was her own son. The depth of what Tuff revealed about her own past in that moment of crisis moves us not only because it took a tremendous amount of courage and compassion, but also because it became very clear to anyone listening to the 911 recording that Tuff could not have spoken to Hill that way without years of her own pain. The patience that she must have had to work on tirelessly every day to raise a mentally disabled child. The raw heartbreak of saying good bye after 33 years of marriage. The struggle that she must have gone through to re-discover her own will to live.
The real miracle was that Tuff was the one sitting in that front office when Hill burst into the school. Not many people, regardless of how much they have been through, would have been able to sincerely relate to a sick teenager with an AK-47 pointed at them in such a calm, loving way. It takes a special kind of humility to be able to do that.
It reminds me of Rabbi Aryeh Levine of Jerusalem who used to visit the Jewish prisoners and the leprosy patients when the British were occupying Israel. He would bring food and letters to the prisoners. He would cry with them and pray with them. He would sit by the bedside of patients who were closed off from the rest of the world. He would tell them that everything was going to be okay. That they were still loved; that their lives were still precious. I could never understand how Rabbi Levin did this. Why was he interested in sitting with the imprisoned and the dying? Why did that become his life work? This 911 call finally gave me an answer. Rabbi Levine had an amazing ability to speak from his heart. He wasn’t just empathetic; he truly felt each person’s pain as if it was his own pain. He had the courage and the humility to speak to others in a way that most of us can only admire from afar.
But yesterday in this school in Georgia, a book keeper named Antoinette Tuff showed us that we can all learn to speak from our hearts. We can all try to feel another person’s pain. We all have something in life, and we can help each other get through almost anything if we have the courage to say: I’ve been there too. Your pain is mine. Everything’s going to be alright.