Recently, Safe Kids Worldwide held its 25th anniversary conference, which was attended by about 300 safety leaders from across the nation and around the world. At the closing, I saluted the first responders -- doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMTs and police officers -- who are first on the line when tragedy happens, like at the Boston Marathon bombing or during Hurricane Sandy. One of the jobs of Safe Kids is to embrace and build the quiet army of people working day after day to keep kids safe.
I am always awestruck when I meet one of those heroes, and America met another one last week, Antoinette Tuff. She's the bookkeeper at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia. On August 22, a 20-year-old man walked into the school with an AK-47 assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. More than 800 students were in the school that day.
With quiet competence and courage, never having confronted this kind of horror before, Antoinette started talking to the young man, and surprisingly, he started talking back. He told her that he was sorry for what he was about to do, but that he was willing to die. Antoinette told him that he didn't need to die that Wednesday and talked about her own challenges, like the reality that her husband had just left her after 33 years of marriage.
From the 911 recording, you can hear her life-saving bravery: "We all have situations in our lives. It was going to be OK. If I could recover, you can too... Let's see if I can talk to them [police] and see if you don't have to go away for a long time... [To Police] He wants to know what you want him to do with the gun."
Then, towards the end of the encounter, she said, "It's gonna be alright, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing. You've just given up. Don't worry about it. We all go through something in life."
Sometimes it's easy to forget how powerful a little love and understanding can be. Antoinette is a model for all of us. There are so many who are able to summon up enormous heroism and life-saving skills they never knew they had. Crisis reveals a remarkable instinct in people like Antoinette Tuff.
As the mother of three kids, I have met my share of teachers and educators. I know their commitment. It's not just dramatic events such as the McNair School near tragedy or Sandy Hook. It's the teacher who counsels a kid who's been bullied. It's the coach who puts the health of his kids ahead of winning. It's a school nurse who treats a young child after a fall or accident.
Educators hear complaints, anger and second-guessing all the time. Rarely do they hear the thanks they so deserve. So as school starts, it is important to thank this group of men and woman who do so much to keep our kids curious, inspired and safe.
You can listen to Antoinette Tuff as she sought to calm the young man on slate.com, possibly saving hundreds of young lives.
This post has been updated from a previously published version.