Perhaps you have heard about Antoinette Tuff, who this week single-handedly prevented a massacre at an elementary school outside of Atlanta. When a man bearing an AK-47 and a variety of other weapons came into the school where Ms. Tuff works as a clerk she did not pull out a gun and shoot him, fulfilling the NRA’s fantasies of what protection looks like. Instead, she chose to respond to the gunman as a human being, not just a crazed killer. She told him her own story of heartbreak and getting through. She prayed. She told him that there was another way out, and invited him to lay down his weapons and give himself over to the police. And he did, without hurting anyone. In case the story isn’t wonderful enough at that, she gave him the opportunity to apologize over the PA system while teachers and students were still huddled in their classrooms.
Now, if you are a proponent of the idea that the best defense is a quick offense, then you will say that this is an anomaly, and that most people with violence on their minds cannot be talked down. While I have yet to see any particular evidence that this conviction is true, it also isn’t my point. If Ms. Tuff had pulled out a gun and shot the man as soon as she saw he was dangerous, teachers and children might have been saved, but someone would still have been shot. And in my theological world every life matters, even that of the gunman. But more than that, in the world of my personal convictions, love matters. Meeting people in their full humanity matters. And the true heroes are the ones who are willing to put their lives on the line in the service of love and humanity.
Antoinette Tuff is clearly a hero. So were the teachers huddled in their classrooms, determined that no child would be hurt on their watch. But you know what? Those teachers were heroes last week, when they didn’t have any idea that their school was headed for the news. They, and countless other teachers returning to school this season, were heroes when they stayed up late designing lesson plans that would engage children in the world of counting or chemistry or world history, working to get young people excited about the process of thinking in a world that is largely more interested in teaching young people to be excited about consuming. They were heroes when they scoured the garage sales looking for books that would make teenagers want to read; when they shared their lunch with a child who didn’t have any; when they stayed in at recess to talk with a child who was acting out in class to find out the source of his anger, rather than just sending him off to the principal’s office.
In the face of systems increasingly built around record-keeping and test-taking there are teachers – not all, but many – who continue to find ways to encourage creativity and critical thinking. In the face of increasing class sizes there are still teachers who still manage to meet each child as an individual, to accommodate each child’s needs and learning style. In the face of helicopter parents, parents working multiple jobs, addicted parents, and families living on the streets, teachers are providing environments where children can experience both responsibility and security. There are teachers – and a wide variety of other school personnel – who day after day meet child after child with love and respect and an abiding interest not only in who that child is, but also in who they might become.
In my book, that’s some kind of hero.