The lesson of Mrs Isabel


Aug 10, 2004 (Updated Apr 9, 2009)


The Bottom Line A story about finding family where you can.

Right below the busy street of Tacoma’s Yakima Avenue and just below the 23rd and Grant intersect lies a dark brown colored, eighty eight year old, haphazardly built and rapidly aging one story house. Surrounded by thickets that were wide enough in diameter to cover a city block, the house was known a symbolic gate, a kind of command post to the Patrick Johnson Housing projects; a place best known in Tacoma as Crip country, where the projects themselves were either infested by Crips in training, Crips making Crip product ( crack), people using Crip product themselves, or people terrorized by the Crips and Crip product users. But the house was best known by the neighborhood kids as the house of Mrs Isabel Minyana, a sexagenarian retired schoolteacher known to practice rites of ancient black Christian mythology. Mixed with African, French and Spanish blood, she was accused of being a voodoo priestess, but from her pear shaped body, wide bright eyes, fiery red hair and wide gap toothed smile, she looked more like a Buddha, or a daoist monk. She was known to spend her days tending her garden, and if you looked between the dark thickets you could see that she had a wonderful one, full of roses, greens, beets and tomatoes.

But what most of the kids in the neighborhood knew (and loved) her for was that she was one of the blocks kindest soul's, eager to cook dinner or hand out candy to any kid who came by, and if you stayed with her for long periods of time, she was wont to spend hours testifying about "her Jesus". Other People on block called her a Jesus freak, voodoo witch, and just about every other foul name you could, but the kids didn't care, for it was the only place in the whole neighborhood that you could go without running the risk of getting shot or stabbed. Out of all the kids in the neighborhood that she doted on, Ms Isabel gave the most love and affection to a select three. Antjuan Williams, a tall scrawny pre teenager who always looked like he was in dire need of eating; Jamal Allison, a little chocolate brown pit bull with a heart of gold, and her favorite, Terrell Roberts. She felt obligated to care for Terrell the most because he was the kid in the neighborhood that was taking the most beatings, be it from pre-teen street bullies, wannabe Crips, or his crack head daddy. She knew he was in a world of hurt because of the countless times she had to pull a pistol on his father upon one of the countless times he broke in to her house. He broke in to everybody's house, but because she looked like she had the most money of everybody in the neighborhood, he set hers as a premium.

When other kids would spend a few hours then go home, Antjuan, Terrell and Jamal would spend the night sleeping on mattresses, each a stacked pair, eating orange ice cream and listening to Mrs. Isabel tell stories before they would doze off. It was a dingy, dark cold place, but each of them loved it. The reason that Isabel allowed them to live there was that each's mother had died and their fathers were addicted to a certain chemical or another. Also she had been child barren all her life, and she saw this as a way that she could regain the lost chance of motherhood that she never got during her youth. They spent the duration of 5 years there living rather blissfully; while the project a half a block away would erupt in violence seemingly by the hour, and their fathers would be way too high to care.

Then on one Monday afternoon came a change, or what you could call an interesting way of depreciation. It actually started during the final period of Terrell's pre-algebra class, in James J Mccarver middle school. He was caught and admonished several times for flirting with Tinesha Jones while he should have been paying more attention to his academic studies. After a half a class of stomaching his behavior, the teacher, Mrs. Virginia Green, reached an impasse.

"TERELL SEE ME AFTER CLASS!" said Ms Green

”Uh oh.” He thought. He was going to be late for his walk home with Antjuan and Jamal. He was going to have to walk home without his boys in his dangerous little neighborhood.

So he waited, sweated and had the kind of internal dialogue that a kid has when he is trying to barter his way out of an a$$ kicking to come. He spent the next half of the class thinking. "Ms Lady do you know where I live? Does your suburban self who likes to b!tch about how hard life is teaching have to walk home in this god-forsaken neighborhood?" The more he worried he became, the faster the clock went to the end of the period. At 2:50 the dismissal bell rang. Terrell went to Ms Green, who was wearing her bouffant hairdo, upper popping sexually frustrated early 60's housewife sunglasses and a facial disposition that indicated that she was more scared of Terrell than Terrell was scared of her. He tried to give her some puppy dog eyes and an," im sorry will you please let me go" look, but to no avail.

" Young man do you know how much you bothered this class" she said wagging her finger at him.

"I’m sorry m'amm." said Terrell, trying to act as sorry and as cute as possible to the point of painfully contorting his face," Can I go now."

" NO!" she ranted, going into a long and winding speech involving the divergent concepts of how Terrell was never going to finish school, her second divorce, how little she was paid, how much she hated Bill Clinton, and how all men are going to cheat on you with a blonde travel agent named Donna with big tits. It didn't matter much to Terrell as he blocked everything she said after 10 minutes, nodding with his eyes nervously on the clock. At 3:40 he was released from the clutches of Miss Green and raced to the spot where his boys meet to go home everyday to see if, by some divine provenance, they were still there.

They weren’t. And as soon as he saw they were gone, he knew was in trouble. The reason that he would go home with his boys right after school was that Mccarver middle school was right in the middle of Blood and Crip territory, and the exact spot where wanna be gangsters would try out for the big boys, by knocking the heads of anyone who happened to be in the wrong place and the wrong time. Terrell learned at an early age that there is nothing more dangerous than a wannabe thug too violent to know how stupid he is and too stupid to know how violent he can be. For at least real Bloods and Crips operated from a street code, wannabe's would f*ck you up for no reason at all.

So he headed home with a mix of trepidation and fear. He had walked out the front door of Mccarver, looking quickly to his sides as if someone was going to storm him from first sight. After he saw the street was quiet, he started running left to the top of the hill on 23rd street a half, exactly a half a mile up from Ms Isabel's house. He looked around again saw everything was all right, and started running down the hill on 23rd street to get home. Just as he got a good distance he heard a Cadillac blasting DJ Quick's “Just like Compton". He knew it was a wannabe, but he didn't want to look, so he started running so fast his hamstrings started to burn, spittle came out of his mouth and his heart started to beat too fast for his 14 year old body. Finally when he got to Yakima avenue after running 3 blocks down the hill, he collapsed to the ground. On his knees, hyperventilating and sweat soaked, Terrell awaited his fate.

“What set do you claim cousin!" he heard a voice say out of the car.

“What the f*ck!" he thought

" I SAID what set do you claim cousin!"

Just right then he knew who it was. Jimmy Collins was a burly loudmouth kid who lived in a nice cul-de-sac two miles away that just happened to be 10 feet away from the suburban Fircrest school district. And the only he wasn’t at Fircrest at that present time was that the district got tired of him and the anti-social sh!t that he tried to pull while he was there. Thus, his tenure at Mccarver , where he tried to assert his " thugdom" in a way that would be quite humorous if he couldn’t kick everybody in the schools a$$, didn’t drive his momma's caddy and wasn't privy to carrying a gun that he bought with funds that he stole from his mothers purse.

Terrell looked up at Jimmy, or J'money as he liked to be called, and saw him rolling in a 77 coup Deville with four neighborhood punks, who were all dressed in the same black sweat shirts, black pants black socks and raiders caps. These Negroes had watched Boys in the hood way too many times, he thought. Jimmy was also wearing a crappy attempt at a doughboy Jheri curl that made him look he had a bucket of grease plopped on his head.

“Do you want to mess with my dogs and I, cousin." he said

Terrell snapped “First of all it's what set you claim CUZ! Not cousin! CUZ! Second it's Dawgs! Not dogs. I repeat motherf*cker cuz not cousin and dawgs not dogs! “

"f*ck you. I’m doing the right pronouncement".

"B!tch this is the hood, this ain’t no english class. If you gonna roll around this neighborhood get the Gawd damm language right."

" Vernacular? Cousin you talk white."

" Well you live in a white neighborhood, motherfu*ker. And if your ignorant little bony a$$ would crack a book once in a while you might know what vernacular means."

" You are getting on my nerves cousin! You don't want to mess with my boys and I."

" Me and my boys! DAMMIT, ME AND MY BOYS!, Cant any of you stupid a$$ n*ggaz who roll with him make sure he gets the words right?

He knew he shouldn't have said his last sentence, because they all came out of the caddy to beat up on him. And although the gangsta leanings of Jimmy and his friends might have been fraudulent, the avalanche of their punches and the butt of jimmy's 38 was quite real. They beat him till he was lying on the ground, feeling a sharp piercing pain on the side of his skull and a liquid that was leaking out of his head.

The next thing that Terrell knew, he opened his eyes and it was night time; he was in a ditch 3 blocks away, Antujan was looking over him crying, and Jamal was pacing himself mumbling cusswords.

"I’m sorry dawg." Antjuan said while holding back a tear.

“Who did this Sh!t, cause I’m messing them UP!" screamed Jamal.

"Aint nobody messing nobody up, man, just get me home." Terrell said in a concussive half whisper. Antjuan and Jamal picked him up, and as they were crossing the street, he looked down too see that half of his Seahawks jersey and blue jeans were caked with blood stains proceeded to freak out.

" Look man you all right you just got pistol whipped" Antjuan told him as they were turning on the 23rd street intersect.

" I know that" Terrell said " I just didn't know how much blood I lost."

When They got to Mrs Isabel's door, she began to freak out. Antjwan and Jamal laid him down on the couch, while Isabel Tied it around his head, washed his clothes, and covered him in one of her church capes.“I wanna f*ck him up” said Terrell, smarting from the cold of the icepack on his head


“ don’t say that baby” said Isabel stroking the left side of his head as she applied pressure to the right “ put it in the lord’s hands. The lord will provide"

“what the lord done for me.”

Just then she shook him “Don’t you curse god in my house!! Be lucky you aint in no shanty town in Haiti or village in Africa! You aint the only boy sufferin in this world. ”

“im sorry, Mrs Isabel ” said Terrell, holding back a tear.

“I know. But you got to be strong. I know you live in a tough place. And I know life aint fair. But you got to forgive him “

“why?”

“Yeah , why?” said an Indignant Jamal.

“Look what he did to him!” Antjuan added in a pained manner.

“I ain’t talking about forgiveness to make him feel better. Im talking about forgiveness to make you feel better. If you don’t forgive him, that pain, that anger, that rage inside in your heart for what he and others have done to you will eat you up inside. Free yourself, boy. If you trust in him and put your pain in his hands, he will show you how.”


Afterwards they had dinner, watched TV for an hour, then went downstairs to go to sleep. The next morning, Ms Isabel came down the stairs with three huge plates of pancakes, bacon and eggs and cereal." Good mornin babies." she said in her Creole patois accent. " Don’t hurry, you got plenty a time to eat, now".

Terrell, Antjuan and Jamal nearly swallowed their breakfast's whole anyway, put their plates away, changed into their school clothes and got to the door where she had their school lunches for them. " Have a good day, " she told the boys "and Terrell baby dontcha worry he take care of everything." she said while pointing up at the sky..

The boys got all the way to the bottom of the 23rd street intersection; where he saw one of the knuckleheads that beat up on him the night before wearing the same street clothes and sobbing uncontrollably.

" That's one of the kids that whopped my a$$" said Terrell, and the kids charged and went up to him with fists in the air." What's wrong with you fool" Jamal said with his fist balled up, a second away from pounding him.

" Man, Jimmy got messed up." the kid told him, sniffing and hyperventilating. "He tried to be in a Crip iniation and they just beat his a$$ and… "


Just then Terrell looked toward Mrs Isabel’s house where he saw her through an opening past the bushes, looking outside her window and nodding her head. He looked down, composed himself and asked the little kid “ Where is he?”

“Tacoma general.”

“What room?”

”sixth floor.”

“Twan , J, cmon. We skipping school.”

“ Hell no!” Said Antjuan

“ He beat your a$$, man. why you wanna see him.” said Jamal

“ Cause It feels right, That why. Now C’mon.”

“look, forgiving is nice and everything, but why the f*ck cant we do it AWAY from his a$$.” Whined Antjuan as they walked toward the hospital

“Yeah man,” said Jamal. “Outside of him hurting you’re a$$, I ain’t got no beef with him. I just don’t want to be his homey.”

“Look man, just cause he don’t know how to act, don’t mean we shouldn’t. Now are you with me or not?”


They went past the bus and went down the street towards Tacoma general. Because they knew that the apartment on the street next to it was a drug den, they took the scenic route going two blocks past the hospital before they turned to it. They walked through the hospital entrance, past the gift shop, went up the sixth floor and went to the nurse

“ Hello ma’am We’d like to see 603 please.” Whispered Terrell to the nurse.

“you kids are so cute” she replied“ do you have any relation to him.”

“We’re his frie-“ said Terrell before Antjuan elbowed him “We’re his school mates.”

“He’s down the hall to your left.”

When they got there they saw his head swollen, and his body tied to different tubes. The Crips had beaten him badly and he was lucky a person stopped them or else he would have been killed. Terrell looked at his bruises and turned to look at the mirror. He saw Jimmy and considered himself lucky to only have a cut and two swollen shiners.

He turned to Jimmy and whispered “ You aight dawg? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry to hear about what happened.”

“Thanks.”

“These streets is hard, man. You just gotta be strong.”

“Why you here>”

“ Why you say that.”

“Cause I beat your a$$.”

“ I don’t know dawg. I’m still p!ssed at you for doing that. It’s just that nobody deserves what happened to you.”

“Thanks.”

“But you gotta understand some things. You see Boyz in the hood in your place and think that life is wonderful, like it’s some cops and robbers sh!t. But we fear that sh!t, homie. We live in fear of that every day. We trying to get the paper to be where you at in Fircrest, man. Nice neighborhood, nice cars and no guns. Don’t try and be like the punks in this neighborhood man, be happy with what you got.”

“You mean , ya’ll ain’t thuggin.”

“Hell naw, n*gga!” said Terell. “see ‘Twan over there he likes to shoot marbles. And Jamal, he likes to draw baseball stadiums.” he pointed them as he said it and they, both still pouting, shot Jimmy a middle finger. “ And me, I like to write. ”

“I’m sorry for beatin you’re a$$, man. I just wanted to have some friends.”

“Well, if you apologize to my auntie, you can hang with us.”

Two weeks after they had left the hospital, Terrell, Antjuan and Jamal were all finishing up breakfast when they saw Jimmy outside of the kitchen window, wandering down the street with a package in his hand. His oversized Jheri Curl and Raiders gear were gone, replaced by a high top fade and a Seattle Super Sonics Jacket. “Jimmy!” Terrell yelled from outside the window “ Over here,dawg!”. Jimmy rushed to the door, and ms Isabel opened with a bemused smile “ Who are you young, man” she said

“My name is Jimmy and I came to apologize for beating Terrell up”

“ Mannn I don’t know.” said Antjuan

“Forget him, Homie” said Jamal

“ I got baseball cards and green jolly ranchers.”

“ YOU ALLRIGHT!” they both said as they slapped him on the back.

“C’mon lets go to the store and get some koolaid.“ said Terrell. After they walked a block, he turned around and once again saw Ms Isabel outside her window, winking and mouthing the words “ You done good boy, you done good.”

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