Nine months before a man walked into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, wielding an AK-47 and a duffel bag full of ammunition and yelling “We are all going to die today,” Antoinette Tuff tried to kill herself. But on August 20, 2013, she convinced the would-be school shooter that he had a reason to live.
“It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I want you to know I love you, okay? I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life…You’re going to be okay. It’s going to be all right.”
Tuff, the school’s book keeper, has listened to this chilling 911 recording, but it’s still hard for her to believe that it’s her voice calmly telling the man, Michael Brandon Hill, that she loved him.
“It didn’t make no difference if he took my life, I was already feeling like I was dead when he walked in the door,” Tuff tells me. “I just knew it wasn’t time for any of us to go. And I didn’t want him to go and take his life, because I had felt that way before.”
Tuff and I talk over tea at New York City’s Renaissance Hotel in the midst of her whirlwind media tour for her book Prepared For a Purpose. She’s just filmed an appearance on The View after visiting Good Morning America. Her afternoon is booked with even more interviews. The 47-year-old is strikingly beautiful, wearing none of the hardships she’s had to bear on her wrinkle-free face. The long, curly braids and black and white patterned dress she sported when she had her first-ever national media appearance—an interview with Anderson Cooper—have been replaced with a business suit and a sophisticated bob.
Like her last name would suggest, Tuff really has been through a lot. She’s been abused and homeless. Her husband proposed to her and another woman with the same ring. She gave birth to, and spent her adult life devoted to caring for a son who is legally blind, wheelchair-bound, and has very few fine motor skills as a result of being born with the neurological disorder Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and a twisted neck syndrome called Torticollis. Derrick, now 22, was also diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. Tuff cared for Derrick and his older sister, LaVita, while working two or three jobs at a time.
Her most compelling fight, however, was the one she had against herself, against her depression and desire to die after her husband, who she’d been with since age 13, left her for another woman. On New Year’s Eve in 2012, Tuff walked into moving traffic and jumped back before it was too late. That exact same night, she would later learn, Michael Hill also had a break down and threatened to kill his brother.
Raised by a devout Christian mother, Tuff grew up going to church multiple times a day, every day, but she never felt like she actually had a personal relationship with God before her husband left her. It was God, she says, who told her what to do when Michael Hill walked into McNair Academy, dressed in all black, ready to kill. She says those are God’s words heard on the 911 recording.
Before Hill walked into the school, Tuff, who was filling in while the receptionist grabbed lunch, was about to go to the bathroom. At one point during their seemingly endless standoff, Tuff even got up the nerve to ask Hill for permission to go. He agreed. She knew that if she could make it out of that reception area, this could be her escape. She could run and hide in one of the classrooms with the rest of the children and teachers or even make it out the backdoor. But she stayed put.
“I knew he was okay with killing,” she tells me. “I knew that if I left him alone there would be a possibility that he would go out and kill. So I knew that if I could stay there with him and keep him in there with me, then we would all get out safe.”
Tuff doesn’t claim to understand what was going through Hill’s head when he walked into the school that day. She knows she never will. But she spoke to a mass shooter before his rampage, somehow getting through to him—despite never getting him to make eye contact—before anyone got hurt.
“He’s a human being,” she says of her refusal to let Hill kill himself.
She’s still working to pay off the bankruptcy debt that her husband stuck her with, but Tuff’s world has been otherwise completely turned upside down. She’s raised over $100,000 with a Go Fund Me account to create a non-profit—co-run by her son—for underprivileged kids who want to go to college. She wants to pursue a career in public speaking, encouraging people to be “prepared for their purpose” as she feels she was prepared by God to talk down Hill on that day in August. She’s kept her job at McNair Academy, but she’s not quite emotionally ready to go back there yet.
“We all go through something in life and we all need someone to be an angel one day,” she says. “God sent people to help me in my suicide moments, in my crazy moments, and in my unbelievable moments.”