The kindergarten teacher started getting suspicious as soon as she heard the man on the sidewalk mumble he wanted to cut across the playground.
The teacher, Rachel Davis, told him no; he'd have to go the the front door of school if he wanted to get in for any reason.
Suspicion turned to anxiety when the man disappeared for a minute, came back and started walking around in circles on that sunny morning May 11. The guy was only about 20 feet away from 32 kindergarteners outside for recess at Inglewood Elementary School in Nashville.
"You get that fishy feeling," said Davis, 30. "To play it safe, I said, let’s line the kids up... so we can all go in."
The moment the other teacher opened the door, the man hopped the fence and raced toward the door, Davis said.
"I need to get inside! I need to get inside!" he shouted.
Davis, terrified, planted her 5-foot-5, 130-pound body in front of the door, saying loudly, "No sir! You cannot come through this door. I need you to leave the playground."
Davis paused in telling the story, looked down and said softly, "I can feel my heart pounding again."
'The fun of art is creating it'
Davis wanted to be an elementary school teacher for as long as she can remember, probably because she loved her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Drinkwine, who always made school fun.
As a girl growing up in Charlotte Park in West Nashville, she made little notebooks out of paper for her dolls. Then Davis sat them in rows and began her lessons, she said.
A few years later, Davis tried holding class for her two younger siblings, reading stories to them. But her brother, Daniel, and sister, Crystal, didn't pay attention as well as her dolls did.
As a high school student at Hume-Fogg, Davis volunteered for a summer program, Arts in Action, for younger students. She remembered one girl getting frustrated while making a clay cat because it didn't look as good as she wanted it to.
"The fun of art is creating it," Davis told the girl. "It doesn’t have to be the perfect image you have in your mind."
The girl felt better and started enjoying art. Davis was hooked on teaching.
She started working as a pre-K teacher at Inglewood Elementary School in 2015, about a year after graduating from East Tennessee State University. This is Davis' first year switching from pre-K to kindergarten.
'RUN! Go inside now!'
On May 11, Davis and another kindergarten teacher were outside with their students, as usual, at 9:45 a.m. in the school's playground designated for pre-K and kindergarten classes only.
Davis saw a man — about 5 foot 8 inches tall, medium build, maybe in his 30s — on the sidewalk waving her over. A three-foot-high chainlink fence separated the two.
The man kind of mumbled and slurred his words, she said, and it took Davis several moments to realize he wanted to come through the playground, maybe to get into the building.
Davis thought he might be a parent, and she instructed him to stay on the sidewalk and walk around the building to the front door. There, he could push a buzzer to tell an office staffer what he needed.
The man walked away, but returned, prompting the teachers to start getting their students inside, Davis said. About half the 32 kids made it inside before the man jumped the fence.
"Get help!" Davis urged the other teacher, and soon, school secretary Katrina "Nikki" Thomas — students call her "Ms. Nikki" — was outside standing with Davis between the man and the door, trying to stop the intruder from getting in.
"Sir, you cannot go through this door!" Thomas insisted loudly.
Davis trembled. "You could cut the air with a knife, it’s so tense in this moment."
The man lunged toward the door, bumping three kids, Davis said.
So she got behind him and wrapped both arms around him, squeezing him as hard as she could to stop him from getting inside.
Davis' students, frozen, stared at her and the man until she shouted at them: "RUN! Go inside now!"
The man continued lunging toward the door, eventually making it inside the stairwell with Davis still wrapped around his back, she said.
The man broke free and started running toward the first-grade wing — and something snapped inside Davis.
"I was going to do anything in my power to protect these kids, not just my kindergarten kids," she said. "All these kids feel like my kids."
Davis ran after the man and launched herself at him, tackling him. Both of them ended up falling backward, crashing on the floor onto Davis' left elbow, breaking it, she said.
The intruder got up, and Davis, the secretary, Thomas, and school bookkeeper Shaquita "Shay" Patton-Thomas all restrained the man in a corner for more than 10 minutes until police arrived, Davis and Principal Ashley Croft said.
That was a long 10 minutes, Davis said. The four wrestled and jostled, with the intruder alternating between calm and highly agitated.
The intruder, who smelled of alcohol, said he had used drugs, adding he felt paranoid that someone was out to get him, Davis said.
'They put their lives on the line'
As police arrived, a colleague led Davis to an empty classroom, where the pain of her broken elbow and the emotion of the incident overwhelmed her.
"I was in full blown panic, trembling, and my legs didn’t want to support my weight," she said.
"I was shaking so much, and my eyes were really big. I was mostly in a state of shock after all that."
Davis got a cast on her arm at Ascension Saint Thomas Midtown and went home to recover for six days before returning to the classroom. Parents and teachers brought food and gifts for her and her husband to their Hendersonville home for days afterward.
Staff and parents also showered praise on Davis and staffers Thomas and Patton-Thomas for confronting the intruder, whom they only later found out was unarmed.
The principal, Croft, said she cried later when she watched surveillance video of the incident.
"Ms. Davis is such a mild, gentle person. What I saw in that video was her doing anything and everything it took to protect those kids," the principal said.
"She and Nikki and Shay are heroes. There’s no telling what would’ve happened had they not acted. They put their lives on the line for our kids."
One kindergartener's mom, small business owner Kate Whitley, called Davis "a bad-ass hero."
And an unlikely one, perhaps.
"She's very petite and organized and color coded and logical," Whitley said of Davis. "I didn't know this fierce lion was lurking in there. She put her own life at risk so my daughter’s wasn’t."
The three heroes and their principal are expected in court Tuesday for a hearing for the intruder on charges including assault and trespassing.
Davis and Croft said they are unsure how they'll feel being in the same room as the intruder again.
"He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody," Croft said, "but people still got hurt and the terror was real."
Davis said she flinches now when she's in public and someone unsteady of their feet starts walking toward her. And she's still uncomfortable on the playground at recess.
Davis had a brief conversation with a school mental health expert, but since then, has had a hard time scheduling further therapy to process the incident.
But she did have a powerful, healing moment her first day back. The first student to walk in that day rushed up and hugged her and started sobbing. Davis cried, too.
"We just had this moment where we're hugging each other as the tears fell," she said.
"And he just said that he was so glad that I was back."
Reach Brad Schmitt at email@example.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Elementary school intruder: Meet the gentle teacher who tackled him