Last week, approximately 870 children at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, a school located in DeKalb County, Georgia, lived through what was almost another national tragedy -- a 'shooter' with an automatic weapon, hundreds of rounds, the intent to kill, and the willingness to die. We are now learning that the students and faculty may have been saved by the simple, yet profound, act of an unexpected heroine.
I heard the 911 tape of Antoinette Tuff, a clerk at the school, talking Michael Brandon Hill, the alleged shooter, out of making Ronald E. McNair another Sandy Hook. We can only imagine how thin the line was that separated what happened from what did not.
The heroism in Atlanta reminds me of another story famously told by Joseph Campbell about a police officer in Hawaii (where Mr. Campbell retired) who saved a man in the act of suicide. It's a story about how we are all interconnected on a deeper level, mostly hidden, and it's often revealed during moments of crises when the veil is abruptly pulled back.
Officers driving on a patrol came upon a man jumping off a high mountaintop infamous for such acts. The officer closest to the jumper dashed out of the car, grabbed him, and for a moment was going over the guide rail with him. The second officer raced around the car, grabbed his partner, and provided the leverage needed to pull them both to safety. The first officer was asked about the moment when he and the jumper were clearly going down together, and he was holding on tightly -- from his own free will. Why would anyone do such a thing? Didn't he have a family? Loved ones? A career? And a life? The officer's response was: "I knew in that moment that we were one and the same, that if I let go I would never be able to live with myself."
At Ronald E. McNair there were moments when Ms. Tuff and Mr. Hill could have tumbled off the edge together, along with countless others. It was Ms. Tuff's tenacity and, even more so, her connectedness with this young man that pulled him back.
As someone who works in behavioral health, the events at Ronald R. McNair touched me. I've been lucky to have observed and to have been taught by some of the most talented 'connecters' out there. Behavioral health is our business and, like any other businesses, some of it is good and some is not so good. Then, there are behavioral health professionals whose skills at connecting are breathtaking. Ms. Tuff, in that moment that truly counted, took my breath away. Perhaps her recent experience, as mentioned in the press, of having experienced personal pain and loss, and of coming close to suicide herself, played a part and became a point of resonance. These things are impossible to know. What we do know is that it worked, and countless students, faculty, and officers are alive because of it. And we do know, because we record these things, what she said. She said it was going to be alright. She said we all go through things in life. She told him she loved him.
Another reason this story resonates with me is that I was president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Society during the time of the Sandy Hook shooting. I was involved in organizing part of the response and was forever changed by that experience. For me, that was like a psychological nuclear blast with waves of pain rippling out from the source and with toxic radiation that perhaps has a rate of decay but remains, in some quantity, forever. I hope that Ms. Tuff has some notion by now of the good she has done at Ronald E. McNair -- of the lives she saved and of the suffering that she averted. What she may not know is how her simple act of bravery and connectedness created its own ripples. Ripples of hope and peace and a reminder of what binds us.