It could have been another catastrophic scene. A man came to the McNair Discovery Learning Center in Atlanta's Dekalb County armed with a semi--automatic rifle and 500 bullets. We know now that he was mentally unstable and that he would claim to be "off his meds." We also know that he came to the school with the intent to emulate the depravity and destruction perpetrated on school children in places like Sandy Hook and Columbine. However, despite his intention and an ordeal that included shots exchanged with the police, the day at McNair ended with no loss of life or injury to anyone,including the gunman who laid down and surrendered. The reason for this outcome was a woman named Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at the school who found the strength, the faith, and, perhaps most importantly, the words to bring about a change of heart in the man who stood in her office loading clips into his weapon.
Ms. Tuff is not a trained negotiator and she did not draw from any other experience of being face to face with such terror. Instead she turned to moments in her own story to express how hope is possible even in desperate times and that life is worth living. She appealed to the humanity of a person who showed every sign of having lost all traces of it. And in the end, for whatever reason, he decided he wanted to live, asked Ms. Tuff to apologize on his behalf, disarmed, and surrendered.
This is not to say that other gunmen could have been stopped by an Antoinette Tuff. There times when a bad guy with a gun can only be stopped by force and there are times when he cannot be stopped at all. But Antoinette Tuff reminded us that we can never forget the power of our words to penetrate even the deepest reaches of the darkness and bring about a transformation.
These are the final days leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One of the readings in the Hebrew Bible associated with this season of reflection and seeking to make amends is from the Book of Hosea: "Take with you words and turn to the Lord [YHVH] Say: ... let the offerings of our lips be accepted for sacrificial calves" What a striking message! Don't actions speak louder than words? How can we come to G*d with our words alone?
But the prophet Hosea understood what Antoinette Tuff knew in those terrifying moments: our words can mean the difference between light and darkness-- even between life and death.
For Ms. Tuff, as she said soon after the incident, the whole interaction was driven by her faith in the midst of tremendous terror. In our daily life, even as we face moments of truth, we rarely, if ever, feel the stakes the way they were felt at McNair. Still, both her example and the lesson of Hosea can inspire us to "use our words" - to take seriously how "the offerings of our lips" can be instrumental in reaching out others and even discovering our own best selves.