I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph over Tragedy
Author of

Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Ky.) Interview

Paralyzed Paducah shooting victim chooses to be happy

By Ruth Schenk | rschenk@secc.org

The prayer circle stretched around the entire lobby at Heath High School before school on Dec. 1, 1997. Missy Jenkins Smith, 15, held hands with her twin sister Mandy on one side and a friend on the other as senior Ben Strong prayed for friends who were sick, family members, faculty and more global concerns, such as peace on earth.

As they prayed, 14-year-old Michael Carneal came into the lobby with 600 rounds of ammunition, two shotguns, two rifles and a pistol. He chose a .22 Ruger, put in a clip of ammunition, turned off the safety, cocked it and started firing a few seconds after the prayer group said “amen.”
Missy said it sounded like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. She heard nine more pops as friends fell to the floor. Bullets hit her left shoulder and back. She fell, too.

Three teenagers died that day: Kayce Steger, 15, Jessica James, 17, and Nicole Hadley, 14. Five students, including Missy, were wounded.

Missy believes in forgiveness. She doesn’t believe it is easy, but she does believe it is necessary. She believed it on Dec. 1, 1997’the day doctors told her she’d be in a wheelchair the rest of her life.

She believed it through the nitty-gritty reality of paralysis. And she still believed it as she went to prison on July 21, 2007 to meet with Carneal.

Telling the rest of the story

Eleven years after the shooting, Smith has released a book about her life titled I Choose to be Happy. Her goal in writing it with Cincinnati journalist William Croyle is to reach more people with her story. There’s never enough time to go to speak to every group that sends an invitation. And there’s never enough time to answer all the questions.

“The book is another way I can speak to kids about what’s happened and what I’ve learned in the last 11 years,” she said in a phone interview.

Croyle said he learned a lot from Missy.

“When we started this book, we weren’t focused on money or fame,” he said. “It’s a book that can help teens and adults deal with their lives.”

He asked the big questions.

“One of the first questions I asked was about forgiving Michael that day,” Croyle said. “I really hounded her about it. She didn’t have an answer. She just said that is ‘just how I am. This is just what God would want me to do.'”

Croyle’s dream for the book is that it will reach every middle and high school student, as well as adults.
“There are lessons in there for everyone,” he said.

“We forgive you.”

The Paducah shooting was different than many other school shootings. Most of the students in the prayer group recognized Carneal. Missy and Mandy were in band class with him.

“We thought Michael was funny and joked with him,” Missy said. “None of us thought he was odd or dangerous or anything like that.”

Looking back, Missy does not believe the prayer group was an intentional target.

“I think Michael knew we’d be gathered in the lobby, but I don’t believe he had anything against us. He grew up in a good family that took him to church.”

Soon after the shooting, teenagers put a huge banner in the school’s hallway that read, “We forgive you, Michael.” It drew both admiration and criticism.

Missy said she forgave Carneal the same day she was shot.

“It may sound bizarre that a 15-year-old could think that way, but I did. Maybe it stemmed from my baptism less than two years earlier in the eighth grade,” Missy wrote in her book. “That momentous night in front of that congregation had strengthened my faith to the point where, as a teenager, my relationship with God was as strong as it had ever been. Faith hope, love, understanding, charity. I was fortunate, at such a young age, that they were all at the forefront of my life. And so was forgiveness.”

Missy makes it clear that forgiveness doesn’t condone evil. Nor does it exonerate someone from punishment.

“I had every right to be angry at Michael for the rest of my life,” Missy wrote. “He robbed me of my ability to walk, murdered my friends, nearly killed my sister and scarred so many people emotionally.”

Missy said being able to forgive freed her from anger and allowed her to move on with her life.

“I hoped that forgiving him had a positive effect on him,” she said. “I hoped it made Michael think about what he did and made him realize that he hurt some good people who liked him. But the forgiveness was mainly for me.”

Life Lessons

When she speaks to groups, Missy shares how that day changed her life.

“I realized that I’m not invincible,” she said. “I live each day as if it’s my last. We need to stay close to God because we don’t know when that time may come. Three of my closest friends died that morning. When they walked into school to meet with the prayer group, they had no idea their lives would end. As a survivor, I want to do something with my life.”

She believes that everything happens for a reason, that there’s no greater principle to live by than the Golden Rule and that forgiveness is powerful.

Ten years after the shooting, Missy arranged to meet Michael in prison. There were questions she wanted to ask and things she wanted him to know.

She told Carneal how much she and Mandy liked him.

“Both of us, we’ve always liked you and we always thought you were a funny, hilarious, wonderful guy, and we just wanted you to know that,” she said.

She also told him about her injuries and how the shooting changed her life.

“I talked about my rehabilitation, including the several months I spent in the hospital right after the shooting, my first trip to the movies in a wheelchair when people kept bumping into me, wetting my pants when I returned to school-one of the most embarrassing moments of my life-the cathing I have to do, the trouble I had with dating after I was paralyzed, and the fact that, because of what he did to me, I couldn’t feel my baby kicking in my womb.”

They talked about the six letters he wrote to her in 1999, about the bullying he experienced in high school. She asked what she should include in the talks she gives around the country.

Carneal told her to tell kids to talk to somebody if they are having problems and to understand how much a kind word can mean to someone.

Carneal apologized for what he’d done. Missy hoped the meeting helped him, though she believes he should serve out his sentence.

“Until 7:40 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1997, I’d pretty much been walking the same, smooth, level, beautiful trail my entire life without my destination in sight,” Missy wrote. “But a minute later, I faced an enormous obstacle, one that wouldn’t allow me to walk that trail any longer. It’s been a long, arduous detour full of ruts and barriers, but I’ve continued to push forward, refusing to quit and turn back. Because of my persistence and faith, this new route has turned out to be even more scenic than the original.”

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This Week’s Happiness Quote

“Just because you are happy it does not mean that the day is perfect but that you have looked beyond its imperfections."

― Bob Marley


Missy and her co-author, William Croyle, will be happy to accommodate you with interview requests. Please contact Mr. Croyle directly through his e-mail.