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Why We Speak

Sometimes you wonder if that whole language thing might not have been the best idea. I’m referring not to when people say “Best. [Blank.] Ever.” or misuse literally, but to when they use words to dissemble, bully, obfuscate, self-aggrandize, proudly display their ignorance, or and/or snarf up airtime like an imperial power having its way with a virgin land. Other times, though, you really understand the whole concept. One of those occasions, for me, came last week, when I heard excerpts of the telephone conversation between Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper in a DeKalb, Ga., elementary school, and a DeKalb police dispatcher. Tuff called the police because a man walked into the school carrying an AK-47 and (the police later determined) 500 rounds of ammunition. A tape of the conversation, which lasted 24 minutes, is available on YouTube, and I highly recommend you listen to it.

Tuff starts by saying, “I’m on Second Avenue in the school and the gentleman said tell them to hold down the police officer coming and he said he going to start shooting so tell them to back off.” (In this post I use the transcript provided by National Public radio.)

Early on, Tuff passes on to the dispatcher the demands made by the gunman, whose name is Michael Hill: “Now, what did you want me to tell her, sir? OK. He told me, put you on hold and call the news, ma’am. … OK. He doesn’t want the kids. He wants the police. So back off and—and what else, sir? He say he don’t care if he die. He don’t have nothing to live for. … He said he should’ve just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this because he’s not on his medication.”

At one point, we hear her addressing Hill: “I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out so that you don’t have to go away with them for a long time.” When he appears to mention suicide, she tells him, “No. You don’t want that. You gonna be OK. I thought the same thing. You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.”

Finally, Hill tells Tuff he’s sorry and puts down his weapon. She makes sure the dispatcher understands he’s unarmed: “OK, he said that they can come in now. He needs to go to the hospital. … He’s laying on the floor. He’s got everything out of his pockets. There isn’t anything. The only thing he has is his belt. Everything is out of his pockets. Everything is sitting here on the counter, so all we need to do is they can just come in, and I’ll buzz them in.”

“It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart,” she tells Hill. “I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

Yes, we do. And if we’re lucky, there’s someone like Antoinette Tuff to talk us through it.

There are a couple of things to note about Tuff’s brilliant performance, one of them obvious: Her language is firmly African-American Vernacular English, sometimes referred to as Ebonics. In one short, devastating sentence—”He say he don’t care if he die”—there are three deviations from standard English. But just as obviously, far from inhibiting or restricting her communication with Hill (who is white, by the way), her mastery of and comfort with this grammar makes her all the more forceful and effective. So does the respect with which she addresses and (more remarkably) refers to Hill (“the gentleman”).

As clearly awesome as Tuff is, her performance wasn’t merely a burst of genius. She and other staff members had had training in how to deal with emergency situations, including hostile trespassers. While speaking with the gunman and dispatcher, she signaled a code to colleagues, who set off a phone tree to tell teachers to lock doors and send children to safety. One of the most notable marks of how well she was trained is the care she takes, once Hill has laid down his weapon, to make it clear that he is no longer a threat.

No, Antoinette Tuff isn’t a superwoman, merely an inspiring one. After the police rushed in and apprehended Hill, she told the dispatcher, “OK. I’m gonna tell you something, baby, I ain’t never been so scared in all the days of my life.”

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