The Power of Personal Courage

The recent near-tragedy at the Georgia charter school, McNair Learning Academy, was averted by a front-office school employee who wasn’t supposed to work that day. As reflected in the recorded 911 call, Antoinette Tuff displayed awe inspiring calm and compassion as she spoke to the 20 year old, mentally ill gunman, repeatedly calling him back into the room with her so he wouldn’t go into the school hallway and start shooting. In a subsequent interview with tv station WSBTV, Tuff told the reporter that she watched the gunman load his gun in front of her, realizing that what was happening was, “bigger than me. I started praying for him [the gunman].” She said that as this crisis was unfolding, she knew that, “800 babies and staff members depended on me to keep their lives safe.”


The composure with which Ms. Tuff speaks during the recorded call and the tv interview were only punctuated at the end by confessions of how scared she felt at the time. Her courage, compassion, and empathy is a crystalline example of what I hope I’d be able to do if confronted by a similar situation.


It’s hard to imagine an instance more dramatic than the conditions under which Ms. Tuff so superbly performed. She put aside all fear for her personal safety and, repeatedly, called the gunman back to her. “[This situation] was bigger than me. I started praying for him.” The fact that this brave woman could summon a concern bigger than her own survival and, simultaneously, find compassion for her would-be executor stuns me. “I gave it all to God,” she explained, somehow summoning the right words, manner, and tone of voice that connected with the gunman so effectively that he put down his weapons and lay down on the floor willing to surrender to the police. Antoinette Tuff wasn’t supposed to work at the PreK-5 school that day, and the front office desk she was sitting at wasn’t even hers.


Hopefully, none of us will ever be confronted with a situation so awful, but there are elements of what Ms. Tuff demonstrated that we can use for inspiration in our own lives and daily struggles—personal courage and the ability to put the big picture ahead of our individual concerns is something for each one of us to consider.


Towards the end of Spiderman 2, Tobey Maguire and James Franco’s characters face one another in their dual capacities as friends and enemies. Frantic to find Mary Jane Watson, Spiderman asks Harry Osborn where Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) has taken her. Reluctant to help Spiderman in any way, Harry accuses Spiderman of killing his father, to which Spiderman replies, “There are bigger things happening here than me and you.” Harry relents and gives Spidey the clues he needs to rescue Mary Jane from the evil and crazy Doc Ock. This is my favorite line in the movie.


It may seem strange that I would choose to pair the very serious, real life heroism of Antoinette Tuff with a scene out of a Marvel Comics’ inspired film, but as regular readers of this blog should know, I am a firm believer in the power of fiction to convey the biggest truths of human nature. Both examples discussed here are larger than the lives we lead—but that was true, too, for Antoinette Tuff until two days ago. The challenge is how do we learn from and apply examples and lessons presented in scenarios way more extreme and seemingly dramatic than those we must face throughout our lives?


Personal courage is a choice. Seeing the big picture and acting on it is a deliberate act of will. What is the big picture in your life? Is it remaining in a difficult relationship or job until your kids graduate and can fend for themselves? Is it turning down a promotion so you can remain closer to home in order to care for aging relatives? Is it taking the risk and inevitable backlash that accompanies most whistleblowers? Is it sacrificing your personal dream to meet a higher objective? Perhaps it’s extending yourself just one more time to give that person who’s disappointed or harmed you the reassurance or forgiveness they seek. There were no guarantees that Antoinette Tuff would live to see the next hour, but she repeatedly called the gunman back to her. As much as Harry Osborn wanted revenge on Spidey, he revealed where Mary Jane was hidden so she could be rescued. These are just two powerful examples of setting aside personal concerns for a more important cause.


Anonymous examples of this sort of courage surround us, but we need to watch for them, acknowledge them, and appreciate those brave enough to try because this will help us when the time comes for us to make our choice. 


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2 Responses to “The Power of Personal Courage”

  1. Says:

    I love it, especially characterizing things as “bigger than we are”.  XO

  2. grasshopper Says:

    so true! great blog!

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