— Six months after being burned over nearly two-thirds of his body, allegedly by classmates, a Florida teen is glad to be going back to school — and doubly glad it’s not the same school.
“This school is terrible. I don’t know why I went to this school,” 15-year-old Michael Brewer Jr. told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York.
Michael was referring to Deerfield Beach Middle School, which he had been attending in October when he and another boy had a difference of opinion over a $40 video game and a stolen bicycle. On a Monday by an apartment complex swimming pool, the one boy and several friends allegedly doused Michael with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. Michael likely saved his own life by leaping into the pool to put out the flames.
On March 17, as Michael was still recovering from the second- and third-degree burns that necessitated four skin grafts, one of his classmates at the middle school, Josie Ratley, was allegedly assaulted by a 15-year-old boy who was enraged over a texting exchange the two had. The boy slammed her head into the pavement before kicking her head repeatedly with steel-toed boots.
Michael visited Josie in the hospital while she was still in a coma. The girl has since come out of the coma, but has suffered severe neurological damage that prevents her from moving her right arm, speaking and swallowing.
“I hope she gets better, and I hope I see her again,” Michael said of Josie. “As soon as she starts believing in herself, she can do it.”
Michael surprised doctors by leaving the hospital for Christmas, much earlier than expected. He said that all the people who wrote and e-mailed him to send along their prayers helped him recover.
“I think that’s the most thing that kept me alive, was all these prayers and believing in me,” he said.
He is set to begin attending classes in a middle school in another Florida city on Wednesday.
“I’m excited; can’t wait,” he told Vieira. “I kind of miss school.” Asked what he misses most, he replied, “Friends and stuff.”
Active despite scars
Michael still has scars from the burns and he was wearing blue compression sleeves under his shirt to protect his arms. But he said he feels no pain. “I feel great,” he told Vieira.
He’s recovered enough to go back to his favorite sports: skateboarding, basketball, baseball and riding his bike. “If I fall, I just get back up and try it over again,” he said.
Michael’s parents and paternal grandparents joined him on TODAY. His mother, Valerie, had told Vieira in late November that she was inspired by her son’s courage and determination to get better and leave the hospital. Even though doctors said he was initially in danger of not pulling through, his parents say they always believed he would make it.
Vieira asked Valerie what her son has that allowed him to pull through in such good shape.
“Lot of courage, lot of determination and an incredible will to live,” she said.
“Where does it come from?” Vieira asked the boy.
Michael shrugged and said, “I have no idea.”
“I knew he was going to pull through it. Thank God he’s still with me. I’m happy,” said the teen’s father, Michael Brewer Sr.
Valerie said it won’t be easy letting Michael go to school on his own again. But she’s also confident that his new school will make sure he stays safe.
Video game and bike
“I’m very apprehensive. I know I have to cut the cord again. I’ve been very protective of him, not letting him get very far from me. I’m just fearful,” Valerie said. “I know he’s a very strong young man. He’s determined. I know the school will protect him. He needs to get back out into the world and start experiencing real life again.”
The events leading up to the attack on Michael began when 15-year-old Matthew Bent gave him a video game and expected him to pay $40 for it, according to the Broward County Sheriff. Michael never paid for the game, so Bent tried to steal a $500 custom bike that belonged to Brewer’s father, police said.
Michael reported the theft and Bent was arrested. When he was released, he and four others found Michael at the swimming pool, police said. Three of the boys — Bent, Denver Jarvis, 15, and Jesus Mendez, 16 — were charged as adults with one count of attempted murder in the second degree in the attack. Two other boys were not charged.
A call for leadership
Michael’s grandmother, Reenie Brewer, has become an activist since the attack, lobbying for adults to take more responsibility.
“I think whenever anything like this happens to a family, you’ve got to take something positive from it. If you don’t, it means it was for nothing. I don’t think that Mikey’s suffering for all those months should be for nothing,” she said. “I think that we need to become better leaders — the grown-ups, the adults. I think we have to stand up and be more respectful of each other and set a much better example for our children.”
Vieira asked Reenie's husband, Norvin Brewer, how his grandson has changed since the assault.
“I think he’s a little carefuller. He sticks a little closer to home; lets you know if he’s going someplace,” he replied. “He’s easier to keep track of.”