Joanna Colwell: A hero shows the power of compassion

We might be all mourning another Newtown-style gun tragedy, this one near Atlanta, if it weren’t for the bravery and calm of a school clerk named Antoinette Tuff. She had just sat down at a desk, taking the place of another secretary at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, when 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill entered the school. Dressed in black and armed to the teeth, the would-be gunman appeared extremely agitated and ready to inflict harm.
Although she was terrified, Antoinette stayed calm. She started praying, and began to practice a spiritual technique called “anchoring” that she had recently learned from her pastor at church.
Spiritual practice is meant to instill in us a deep, unshakable calm. In postural yoga practice we learn to “anchor” ourselves into the earth, by sending imaginary roots down from the soles of our feet. These roots may be imaginary, but the slowed breathing, heightened awareness, and increased ability to be present, are very real. We work with the physical body to affect the mind and emotions.
Although Antoinette Tuff may not have a yoga practice, her actions that day inspire me to want to practice more diligently. She began speaking to the disturbed young man in front of her.
She assured him that everything would be OK. She started telling him about some of her own difficulties. She had recently lost her husband, and one of her children was disabled. She told him that in the past year she had felt a great deal of despair, but had managed to get to a better place, and that he could too.
At one point in their conversation, the young man told her his name. “That’s my mother’s maiden name!” exclaimed Antoinette, “We could be related.”
This part of the story really struck me. In spite of her fear, this brave woman reached out and connected with the frightening person in front of her. Although he was wielding an AK-47, she reminded him of their shared humanity.
Michael Brandon Hill told Antoinette that he had not taken his medications that day. “It will be OK,” she assured him. “You haven’t hurt anyone. It’s all right.”
Later, she was able to convince him to put down his weapon. She got him to lay down the rifle on her desk. She got him to empty his pockets of ammunition. She got him to lie down on the floor, with his hands behind his back. The police came in and got him out of the school.
He was armed with a deadly weapon, one that was designed to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. She was armed with compassion, a strong connection to her spiritual source, and a calm and quick mind. I watched an interview with Antoinette Tuff, which is how I learned some of the details of her ordeal. As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but wonder, would I be able to be so grounded, so calm, so brave?
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats. Feedback for this and other columns warmly welcomed: [email protected].

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