Last year, Thomas Fields came home.

A former student, he started working at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a Detroit public school focused on African-centered education, by helping students who had discipline problems. He was devoted to serving the community that raised him. 

On Monday, Fields died of complications resulting from COVID-19. He had been hospitalized a few nights before, but principal Jeffery Robinson was one of many praying he’d bounce back, that he’d be part of the majority who’d recover. He was a strong and healthy young man. 

The passing is devastating.

“I was like a father figure to him,” said Robinson, who once was Fields’ homeroom teacher. 

His death was among a handful that cast a pall over the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced Monday evening that two staff members and three parents had died that day. 

On Tuesday morning, Vitti acknowledged the death of Dwight Jones, the legendary basketball coach at Mumford High School. The gym at Mumford is named after Jones, who was the coach for decades.

Fields, 32, was the son of a single mother. He earned a college degree at Grambling State University and served in the U.S. Navy.

He was a towering presence, standing more than 6 feet tall, with a muscular build and tattoos emblazoned on his forearms. He had a warm heart. 

He attended Malcolm X Academy for three years, starting in the sixth grade. 

Robinson remembered the quiet, mischievous boy who cracked jokes, loved basketball, and was hip to the streetwear fashions of his day. He excelled in academics and was beloved by peers and teachers. He was kind and respectful.

Robinson watched Fields mature into a confident, caring young man, and over the years they kept in touch.

When Fields first reached out to Robinson in December 2018, Fields wanted to volunteer at the school. But when the position opened to be the school’s culture facilitator, Fields jumped on the opportunity. Robinson was moved to see Fields, a young, black male, be a student role model. He said it was one of the most touching moments in his decades-long career as an educator. 

“It brought me to tears because it’s so uncommon in my experience,” he said. 

As the news broke of Fields’ passing, there was an outpouring of memories posted on social media. 

Kimberly Jackson is an English language arts teacher and taught Fields in the seventh grade. She posted photographs of Fields to cherish the memories they shared. Seeing her former student work at the school brought her joy.

“We teach our children to come back,” Jackson said. “It warmed my heart to see him again. I was so proud.”

Fields was devoted to helping children and their families. 

He’d greet parents in the parking lot or as they walked into the school’s doors. He was there, before school, during lunch, after school. Everyday, he’d haul a heavy basketball hoop outdoors to make sure the students could play. He offered extra help, whether it was putting up decorations, helping with talent show auditions, the school spelling bee, events with guest speakers, as well as mentoring or tutoring youth. And he made sure youth who were experiencing homelessness were always nurtured and never teased.

In his role as the school facilitator, he’d help students work through their struggles after they were suspended or acted out in class. To him, they were just having a bad day, and he always wanted to cheer them up. If he saw a student sad or upset, he’d take them aside and walk with them through the hallways, talking to them and making sure they were all right.

Fields quickly became a father figure to the boys and girls at the academy. He made sure everyone felt safe and loved, and encouraged students to follow their dreams. 

Jackson remembered a time a young student told Fields about her dream to open her own salon. Fields encouraged her to start writing up a business plan and tied those goals to academic achievement. He believed in his students. 

“He would tell them, ‘I went to this school. I know you can make it,’” she said. 

Aliya Moore, the school’s PTA president, was part of the committee that interviewed him for the job. She remembered how kind, polished, and intelligent he was, coming to the interview in a full suit. 

“He brought this freshness, energy, and passion,” she said. “He blessed our hallways.”

The school staff plans to post a picture of Fields on their walls. It’s important to them that Fields becomes part of the school’s history when classes resume once again. But right now, it’s tough on everyone, knowing that cheerful smile and positive spirit won’t be there when they come back.

“It’s heartbreaking. I’m going to miss him,” Jackson said.