“I’m a hugger,” says Antoinette Tuff, deflecting a handshake for an embrace as a visitor enters her suburban Atlanta home. The walls of Tuff’s split-level house are hung with diplomas and certificates; trophies and ribbons crowd end tables and shelves. From summer camp through college, the milestones of Tuff’s daughter, LaVita, and son, Derrick, are chronicled on paper and parchment, bronze and silk. In the den, a matching pair of framed portraits highlights a pivotal year in Tuff family history: 2009, when LaVita graduated from Tennessee State University and Derrick graduated from high school. For the rest of us, it’s what Antoinette Tuff accomplished in 2013 that deserves commemoration. On August 20, she persuaded a man carrying an assault weapon to surrender rather than open fire in a DeKalb County elementary school. For twenty-five minutes, Tuff relayed messages between the gunman—twenty-year-old Michael Brandon Hill—and an emergency dispatcher. At one point Tuff offered to escort Hill if he would turn himself in; she’d serve as a human shield to protect the 800 students crouched under desks in locked classrooms at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy.
“It’s all going to be well,” Tuff reassured Hill as he stood in the school’s front office, reloading his gun; he’d shot at the floor, sending a bullet ricocheting through the office, and had fired out of the school entrance toward the gathering police cars. Tuff told Hill about her divorce, the anguish of losing a husband after three decades. She talked about her son’s struggle with multiple disabilities. “We’re not going to hate you,” she assured the agitated young man, and as police approached, she said, “I just want you to know that I love you, okay? I’m proud of you.” As officers arrested Hill, Tuff’s calm finally cracked, and with a catch in her voice she told dispatcher Kendra McCray, “I tell you something, I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life.” Thanks to Tuff’s presence of mind when confronted with that terror, the incident at McNair is known for what did not happen. Instead of body bags and anguished parents, TV crews found families embracing in safety. Instead of 911 recordings of bullets and chaos, cable news channels aired the calm voice of Tuff. “I didn’t know I had it in me,” she told Anderson Cooper when she appeared on CNN. Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper with steely nerves and a symbolic surname, became instantly famous. She was heralded by media outlets from the Washington Post (“America, listen to Antoinette Tuff”) to the gossip site Jezebel (“Woman Stops Elementary School Gunman Using Sheer Awesomeness”). Reporters attended services at her church, trying to fathom the faith to which Tuff credited her heroism. She went to Washington and met the president. Representative Hank Johnson gave her a congressional proclamation, and she was honored by the DeKalb County Commission and Governor Deal. But Tuff has not hung those awards on her walls. The woman who became famous for grace under pressure remains gracefully modest.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue with the heading “Saving Grace.”