When Bruce Fussell heard his former student had lost a leg and was in the hospital, he knew what he had to do. He didn’t call Montravious Thomas or his mother and tell them he was coming, He just got in his car and headed for Atlanta.
” I had to go,” Fussell said. “He’s one of my kids and he is hurting.”
His old teacher was hurting too. The two of them first met when the child was in the fourth grade at Allen Elementary School in Columbus. Something about Montravious endeared him to the second-generation educator. “That’s why I knew I was going to see him. It never crossed my mind not to go.”
Their reunion at Egleston Children’s Hospital is a moment Fussell will never forget.
“I stuck my head in the door to his hospital room and when Montravious saw me he smiled — then he started crying. Pretty soon I was crying. Then his mother started bawling,” said Fussell, who spent 16 years working with Behavior Disorder students.
The visit was emotional for everyone in the room. They didn’t talk about the specifics of what happened to the unsettled seventh grader on the afternoon of Sept. 12 at the Edgewood Student Service Center. They did talk about how the 13-year-old was dealing with the loss of his right leg and how he would face the ones that will follow.
“He’s one of my kids and he is hurting.”
Though Montravious never played on a school team, Fussell saw him as an athlete.
“I always told him that one day I would watch him playing in the NFL.” He already has one former student in pro football and he believed Montravious could be the second. He sometimes uses a football term to describe him — one that is haunting now.
“He had such great feet,” Fussell says.
Fussell was referring to the kind of agile footwork that makes a large athlete nimble and he figured Montravious would one day grow into a spot on the offensive or defensive line. In that hospital room, his one time teacher told the youngster he could still have dreams.
“I told him to pick out a sport in the Paralympic Games in which he wanted to compete and that I would become his coach,” Fussell says. ” I told him that right now he may think he can’t do these things, but he can.”The teacher and the pupil first met in December of Montravious’ fourth grade year when he reported to Fussell’s BD class at Allen. Their rapport did not come easy and those first few days featured the usual challenges new kids have in strange surroundings.
“Everyone marks their turf and there is always a need for attention. And a lot of those kids feed off negative attention more than positive attention. At the beginning there is a need to build trust,” says Fussell, whose father was a high school principal.
He remembers a student who faced challenges in the classroom, a youngster who grew out of an unstable household. At the same time he was well-groomed and classmates looked to him as a leader. Fussell’s techniques sound sound unorthodox to traditional teachers but for him they were effective. He showed his students motivational videos, using 30×30 episodes from ESPN that told uplifting stories and reminded the kids that they could overcome.
Montravious’ leg was injured on Sept. 12 and he has been at Egleston ever since. He was hurt in a tussle with a behavior specialist who was trying to restrain him. He was using MindSet techniques on the student’s first day in the alternative class at Edgewood.
Fussell was trained in that same technique and years ago he was a MindSet instructor. He had to physically restrain Montravious one time in two years. “I only took him down once, and that was in his first week at Allen. I never had to do it again,” he said.
Fussell’s undergraduate degree was in history but after experiencing the rewards of working with special needs students he got a Master’s Degree in Special Education. He taught BD classes for 16 years, the last eight in Muscogee County.
He doesn’t portray Montravious as a perfect child. Far from it. But at the same time he says he had other students who were more out of control. A few of them moved into the regular classroom and one of them graduated from college. “I went to his graduation ceremony in Kentucky,” he says.
For every success story there are others that didn’t make it. Some of his students are serving prison sentences and some committed suicide. As the years passed, Fussell realized he was carrying around their problems, leaving him angry and depressed.
That became too much to bear.
“I felt like I wasn’t making a difference anymore,” he says.
With the support of his doctor and his family, he was awarded a disability retirement in 2015. These days he paints houses and does handyman work. He is at peace. But Fussell does not forget his students. He can’t. That is why former colleagues called him for information about Montravious once news of his injury and the amputation made headlines.
“Back at Allen, other teachers — if they couldn’t remember his name — would mention the kid with the Big Smile. When they heard what was going on they called me to ask what was happening. We talked about our memories of him when they called,” he says.
There was never a question in his mind that he had to go see the kid with the Big Smile. “He was glad to see me and I was glad to see him. It was good for him to know that somebody from the school system cared enough to visit. I wish others would show their human side and reach out to him,” Fussell says.
His passion for special education is still there. He even understands what Bryant Mosley — the behavior specialist whose restraints led to the child’s injury — is going through. He doesn’t criticize Mosley’s actions in the classroom, for he wasn’t there.
“I feel for him — just not as much as I do for Montravious.”
Bruce Fussell’s emotions sometime overflow when he talks about students such as Montravious Thomas. That’s why there isn’t a photograph of the former teacher attached to this article. He also declined to go on camera and share his feelings.
“This isn’t about me,” he says. “This is about Montravious.”