I'm delighted to have been asked to become a regular contributor over at Middle Places, a collaborative blog produced by a fantastic group of women. I love being a part of the conversations they are having on the messy ways of grace. I'm sharing there today, reflecting on how writing helped me heal after we were held up at gunpoint at the elementary school where I worked.
In my third year as an elementary school teacher I was reassigned to a new school.
The following Saturday, after looking on Google Maps and realizing the new school was only 4 miles from our home, my husband Chris and I decided to ride our bikes over to find the best route for me to bike commute to work.
We set off after lunch on the sunny California afternoon for a ride that would change our lives forever.
The school was nestled between the heart of downtown and the large West Oakland housing projects. We rode up onto the sidewalk in front of the flagpole and stopped to take in what would be my new workplace. A beautiful student-made mural celebrating Martin Luther King’s dream of equality covered the front of the building.
Reaching into my bike basket, I wanted to find my phone to take a photo of the mural. I fumbled with my helmet and tried to get Chris to take it from me so my hands would be free.
“Here,” I said. “Can you take this?”
No answer. I was still looking in my basket and assumed he just didn’t hear me.
“Chris, can you take my helmet for me?”
Again, no answer.
I looked up and saw him standing completely still, both hands up in the air.
Turning I saw two teenage boys looking at us, expressionless. The shorter one held a small black gun now pointed at me.
“Gimme all your money,” he demanded.
“I don’t have any money,” I stammered, holding out my phone to offer it instead.
He turned, thrusting the gun toward Chris.
“I said, gimme all your money.”
Slowly, deliberately, Chris pulled out his wallet. He had been out with friends from work the night before and, thankfully, had more cash on hand than usual.
He took it out, fanning the bills and placing them in the gunman’s empty hand.
The two boys nodded at each other and then turned, running down the block.
“Let’s get out of here, “ Chris directed.
I was too stunned to speak. We walked our bikes out past the playground and around the corner to a nearby liquor store where we called 911 and eventually got a ride home from the police.
The next 24 hours were a haze of feelings – gratitude, anger, fear, loss. I felt a deep need to tell people what had happened but I struggled with how to talk about it. By Sunday afternoon I developed an unrest in my chest, a sense that I needed to do something, anything to take hold of the wave of emotions.
I took out my laptop and began to write, fresh hurt, fierce anger, deep sadness pouring out as I typed.
I wrote about the faces of the muggers and wondered why them and why us and why then. And I knew while I wrote that those questions were bigger than them and us and that corner on that day.
I wrote about the grace of the Yemeni liquor store owners and the help of the overworked policemen and felt immense gratitude for good people working in hard places.
I wrote about all the ways it could have been worse – being alone or getting shot or not having money to give them. As I wrote those sentences I felt fear, then relief and fear again.
In the aftermath of that awful afternoon, moving the feelings from my chest to the page began to change things for me. As I wrote about moving forward, working in that neighborhood, preparing myself to revisit the scene of the crime every morning as I got my students off the bus, I realized that I really wanted to go back to that place, to work to change it.
When I finished writing, I wanted to share my story, to invite my community into my experience. I quickly formatted a website and hit publish. It became the genesis for a blog where I would tell redemptive stories of teaching a beautiful class of 4th and 5th graders with significant cognitive disabilities over the next few years.
Facing the gunman at the flagpole that afternoon, I felt more powerless than I ever had before or since. But writing gave me the power to shape the narrative of that day and the days that followed. When I told my own story, I didn’t see a victim. I found instead in my telling an opportunity to find beauty for ashes, to see strength instead of fear.