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Tuff Enough

Thursday, 22 August 2013


Tuff Enough - The Fabulous Thunderbirds (mp3)

It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived. ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Antoinette Tuff might be the bravest woman who ever lived.

Maybe our names don’t determine our fates, but by God her name was heaven sent on August 20, 2013. She’s Tuff, dammit. She's Fabulous Thunderbirds Tuff. She’s Jackie Brown tuff. She's Atticus Finch tuff.

Since I’ve never met the woman, since I’ve only heard her on a telephone for some 20 minutes, I might be exaggerating, making one too many assumptions. But if I’m wrong about Antoinette Tuff, it’s only by a matter of degrees.

On the off chance you just got back from Mars and haven’t heard of this woman, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version. Crazy young white dude with an automatic weapon barges into McNair Elementary Learning Academy* in Atlanta.

Michael Hill is there because he wants to die. No question about it. And what better place, if life has lost its meaning, if you can’t seem to end your own life, if you want to make damn sure you’ll end up dead, than an elementary school in 2013 if you’re a heavily-armed white guy?

But even crazy homicidal suicidal young white men have some part of them, buried deep maybe, that wants to be talked out of it, that wants to believe there’s hope. Our modern society doesn’t much care about that part of them. To be fair, we can’t really afford to worry about that, when the lives of a few, a dozen, a hundred small children are on the line. It’s easier and far more practical to dream of armed citizens capable of ending the threat with a trigger and decent aim.

But that hope is in there somewhere, and Antoinette Tuff found it.

She talked to an armed madman like he was a human being. Armed only with her faith in God and what must be a deep belief in herself, she squared off with Michael Hill with her head and her heart. She squared off with him, not against him.

No one died. Not one soul was lost from this earth. Not the kids, not the adults, not the police, and not even Michael Hill. She not only saved him; she showed him love.

“Just stay calm and don’t worry about it. I’m gonna sit right here so they’ll see that you didn’t try to harm me. It’s gonna be alright, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you though and I’m proud of you, that’s a good thing you’ve just given up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

That, dear reader, is the voice of God.

Christopher Hitchens himself could crawl out of his grave, walk undead and rotting to my side and tell me in his snotty British accent that God wasn’t real, but I know better, because I heard Antoinette Tuff in my TV on a Thursday morning in August and knew to the depths of my soul I was listening to the voice of God.

She’s an elementary school bookkeeper. She’s the kind of person in the kind of job that no one pays any heed, that most politicians think is a waste of education-directed taxpayer dollars. The most cynical can believe she only saved one life, but I hope we can at least agree to be thankful that we’ll never really know for sure how many lives got saved.

When the event was over, when she exhaled and said “Oh Jesus” and let her fear and relief be heard, it was in that moment that I full-on wept with admiration for Antoinette Tuff, because you knew in that moment she was just a bookkeeper who found a kind of internal strength and focus that was built to last exactly as long as it needed to and not a minute longer.

Ms. Tuff had the kind of moment they write books about, the Atticus Finch kind of courage. It’s naked courage, courage unarmed, looking in the face of possible death via one or many bullets, knowing the only thing to protect you is your heart, your soul, your voice, and Leaning In, as they say it nowadays.

I sort of hope we don't find out too much about Ms. Tuff. Modern journalism usually means spending a long stretch of time placing someone on a pedestal while searching for something that will eventually bring it all crashing back down. The news loves houses of cards; easy to build, and easier to knock down. I don't want her bronzed, and I don't care whether she's been married for 20 years and a devoted mother and friend or the single baby mama of 14 children who has a rap sheet longer than my left leg.

What truly matters is that moment, a moment and a test most of us would fail, a moment that she, for reasons we might never truly grasp but would be wise to appreciate, was a real hero.

You can hear the WABE report on the call or the complete unedited audio of the call at WABE’s web site.

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