By Bill Hewitt
April 13, 1998 12:00 PM

THE 850 MOURNERS WHO CAME TO BURY SHANNON WRIGHT WERE determined to leave the services with something more than their sorrow. At the cemetery in Jonesboro, Ark., minister Benny Baker of the Bono Church of Christ handed Shannon’s husband, Mitch, a single red rose. “I want you to take it home and press it,” said Baker. “I want Zane”—Mitch and Shannon’s 2-year-old son—”to know the story of the rose and his mother. And I want it to encourage Zane as I want it to encourage you.” Then Baker called the names of children born over the past week at St. Bernards hospital. “The tragedy,” said Baker, “is that Shannon will not get to teach them.”

And so the enduring lesson to be learned from the life and death of Shannon Wright, 32—one of selflessness, sacrifice and devotion to duty—had become a source of inspiration and courage. That was no small comfort to a community still in shock from the events of March 24, when 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and his 11-year-old friend Andrew Golden allegedly opened fire on fellow students and teachers at the Westside Middle School, just outside Jonesboro. The rampage lasted less than a minute but yielded a terrible body count: four girls—two of them 12 years old, two only 11—and Wright, who taught sixth-grade English and died shielding 12-year-old Emma Pittman from harm.

On the last morning of her life, Wright had been typically ebullient with her students. Just back from a week’s vacation at Disney World with Mitch, 32, and Zane, she joked and shared tales of their adventures. “She was showing us pictures of Zane kissing Minnie Mouse on the nose,” says Emma. “She loved Zane; she was so proud of him.” After lunch the class had reassembled and was getting ready to go to computer lab. Then the fire alarm sounded. “Someone had told me the principal was going to stage a play to show us what to do in case it was the real thing,” says Emma. “So we lined up and went outside, just like we were supposed to do.”

Wright’s class emerged into a play area behind the school that had been chosen to keep students safe from emergency traffic. Now it became a killing ground. The first few gunshots, coming from the woods a hundred yards away where Johnson and Golden were hiding, wearing full camouflage outfits and armed with semiautomatic hunting rifles, caused no panic; many assumed they were firecrackers or part of a prank. But when chips of concrete and clumps of dirt began flying, and several students fell wounded, pandemonium broke loose. ” ‘Oh my God, this isn’t a fake. Run! Run!’ ” Emma recalls someone yelling. “You could see the blood on the sidewalk around where they were falling.”

At that moment, Emma was standing just outside the door, about two feet from Shannon Wright. Instead of ducking back inside, Wright’s first instinct was to get between her students and danger. “She grabbed me and shoved me behind her and pushed me out of the way,” says Emma. In the next instant, Emma watched in horror as her teacher crumpled to the ground, shot in the stomach. “All I really remember was that she fell, and I started to run,” says Emma. “She went ‘uhmmmmm,’ sort of a soft sound, with pain. She just fell straight down.” Wright died a few hours later at St. Bernards hospital of massive internal bleeding—but not before saying, “Tell Mitch that I love him and I love Zane and to take care of my baby.”

A second teacher cut down by the gunfire, Lynette Thetford, 42, was herding children out of harm’s way when, according to student Christina Amer, 13, she stepped in front of Christina and was wounded in the abdomen. Initially hospitalized in critical condition, Thetford is now expected to recover fully and has adamantly resisted being described as a hero. Her husband, Carroll, says that as far as she is concerned, she was only “taking care of her children.”

The outpouring of grief and the tributes to her own heroism would no doubt have sounded strange to Wright, an unassuming woman who had dreamed of being a teacher from childhood. Reared in nearby Bono, she was a natural optimist, according to her father, Carl Williams, 60, a retired state highway worker, and her mother, Jeannie, 55, a beautician. “Any memory of her is my favorite,” says Carl, fighting back tears. “I’m kinda negative. She was always positive. When you’d be down and out, she’d always say things would get better.” Her first pupil was her younger brother Todd, now 23. “She used to grab me and teach me,” he says. “When I was real little, I was having trouble pronouncing my r’s. I couldn’t say ‘rat.’ I’d say ‘wat.’ So she worked on that.”

Shannon herself attended the West-side schools, where she was a popular cheerleader. She got her teaching certificate at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro before returning to West-side in the early ’90s. Husband Mitch, a high school fund-raiser she met in college, recalls that his wife had a deep streak of mischievousness. “We went to Hollywood, and the first place we had to find was Lucille Ball’s house,” says Mitch. “She reminded you of Lucy, she always did such crazy things.” And she brought much of that exuberance to her teaching. She had pet names for nearly all her students and composed silly jingles to help them remember their grammar. “We were always laughing at her, not in a bad way, but laughing at her jokes and stuff,” says Emma.

The four girls shot down with Wright hadn’t had the chance to leave their mark on the world, which in some ways made their deaths all the more pitiful. Paige Ann Herring had turned 12 just 13 days before she was killed. A gifted athlete, she played Softball and was on the Westside girls’ basketball and volleyball teams. She was buried in a glossy white casket covered with dozens of pink roses and draped with an orange jersey bearing her number, 10. Natalie Brooks, 11, loved art and music. A devout Baptist, she carried her Bible to school with her each day and attended Bible camps in the summer.

Stephanie Johnson, 12, was buried with a pink stuffed rabbit. Her bronze-colored coffin with pink lining was open during her funeral service, which began with a recording of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Britthney Varner, 11, had been Westside Middle School’s Student of the Month in February. She was also a “huge” Leonardo DiCaprio fan, according to a friend, so at her graveside her sister Misty sang the theme from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” which became a kind of unofficial anthem at the services. So many funerals for victims so young left many who attended deeply shaken by the sheer senselessness of it all. “People need to tell kids they love them,” says Shannon Wright’s father, Carl. “Kids need to be told that over and over again. If those boys had been told that, maybe this would not have happened.”

If only it were that simple. A distraught Scott Johnson, Mitchell’s father, a long-haul trucker living in Minnesota while his son stayed with mother Gretchen Woodard in Arkansas, said simply, “I don’t have an explanation for any of this. It’s not something you would expect out of your child or anybody else’s child.” Of only one thing was he certain: “My son is not a monster.” In fact both boys were adequate students and had never had serious discipline problems at school. But last year, Mitchell was investigated by police in Minnesota, where he was visiting at the time, for allegedly molesting a toddler-age girl. More recently, Westside student Candace Porter, 11, briefly his girlfriend, had broken up with him because “he was always talking about fighting other people.” Some students said he was furious over the breakup and reported he threatened that “something big” was going to happen and that he had “a lot of killing to do.” But no one took him seriously enough to tell officials, and so far authorities say they have no reason to believe any of the victims were targeted, though Candace Porter was one of those wounded, shot in the side.

Johnson’s partner, Andrew Golden, is described by neighbors as a foul-mouthed bully who often picked fights. Like Johnson he was fascinated by guns; he was given his first real rifle when he was 6. Local residents say this is nothing unusual in their part of the world, but the two boys’ proficiency with high-powered weapons obviously contributed to the deadliness of their attack. Weapons, including a Universal .30-cal. carbine and a Remington .30-06, were allegedly stolen from Golden’s grandfather Doug, who kept his arsenal unlocked in his home.

Since the shooting, both boys have spent much of their time lying in their bunks in separate cells at the county jail, asking when they can go home. Golden seems to be faring the worst. “He’s so pitifully scared,” says his great-grandmother Nora Golden, 79. “You take a little 11-year-old child and he’s crying and asking for his momma. I don’t think they hardly realize what they’ve done yet.” Under Arkansas law the boys cannot be tried as adults. Rather, a juvenile court will decide whether they should be considered delinquent. If so, they will be sent to a juvenile facility, probably until they are 18, where they will receive schooling and counseling. They could be held for three more years after that in a special section of an adult prison. Then they will go free, with their records sealed.

In the days after the shooting, U.S. Justice Department officials explored the possibility of sending the alleged killers to prison for longer terms by charging them under federal statutes, but legal experts doubt anything will come of that. In the meantime, despite assurances from their parents, at least some of the kids at Westside are terrified. “Emma’s really fearful that after [Johnson and Golden] get out of jail, they are going to find her and kill her,” says her mother, Susan Pittman. By and large, however, the students seem to be recovering fairly well, at least on the surface. On Monday counselor Betty Stockton said when she arrived at the school playground, “there were shrieks of laughter and games. I was very happy to see that.”

Naturally some people in Jonesboro feel their town will forever be stigmatized as the home of two juvenile killers. But that is only part of the story. It was also the home of four beloved young girls who meant no harm to anyone and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it was the home of Shannon Wright. “I consider her an angel,” says Susan Pittman of the woman who saved her daughter. “I get very emotional when I think about it. For years I prayed to God to send an angel, a great big angel, to wrap its arms around Emma and protect her. Who would have ever thought it would be in the form of a schoolteacher.”