Mario’s tightrope: A boy navigates a violent maze

In Reports

 

Mario Frierson, a 12-year-old with wide-set eyes and the seriousness of a boy trying to escape a maze, finished his chicken wings and kissed his mother on the cheek.

“I know that I can become something in my life,” Mario said. “As long as I get my childhood straightened out.”

The stakes are high. In July, Mario’s 15-year-old half brother, Jakaris Taylor, was charged in one of the most brutal crimes this city has ever seen. Police say that as many as 10 masked intruders gang-raped and tortured a 35-year-old Haitian woman and her 12-year-old son in Dunbar Village, the public housing development where Mario lives. The attackers beat the 12-year-old and poured household chemicals in his eyes. They forced the boy and his mother to have sex.

Now Mario’s brother faces life in prison. The 12-year-old victim, a friend of Mario’s, has gone into hiding. Surrounded by hazards – gunshots fired late into the night, the bustling drug trade along nearby Tamarind Avenue and the daunting requirements of fifth grade – he is as determined as ever to get out.

“I know that if I just try, if I try my hardest, then it can happen,” he said.

* * *

Mario’s everyday struggle is the price of success in a neighborhood where nearly 60 percent of people live below the poverty line and police were called more than 700 times in the year leading up to the gang rape. It also offers a clue to one of the most tantalizing mysteries about children growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods: Why do some succeed, while others stumble?

“You can see kids in the same family, and one is just absolutely drawn to the street life and one is absolutely bound and determined that they’re going to work hard, get an education, get up and get out,” said Laurel Robinson, executive director of the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, which oversees Dunbar. “Some kids make it, and some kids don’t.”

Jacqueline Minor, Mario’s mother, says she has emphasized the importance of school with both her sons, meeting with teachers and transferring Jakaris to an alternative school because he was acting up in class. Recently, she sent him to live with his grandmother a short distance away so he could be closer to football practice. But she said there’s only so much a parent can do.

“As much as you want them to have it, they have to want it, too,” Minor said. “Because I know some kids whose parents were real, real strict and they’re far gone now.”

A girlish 33-year-old with a butterfly tattoo on her wrist and a job at McDonald’s, Minor has been adamant that Jakaris take responsibility for his role in the crime, whatever it may be. She maintains that he’s innocent until proven guilty, but she also knows how intimate — and indiscriminate — violence can be in a place like this. From the back door of her apartment, she can see the boarded-up windows of the victims’ apartment where the attack occurred.

“That could have just as well been her looking out her front door and now my house is boarded,” Minor said. “It’s too close to home.”

When she began to think that Jakaris might know something about the case, she took him to the police herself. When he wouldn’t answer their questions, she asked to talk to him, according to a police report.

“Jacqueline told Jakaris that what happened to the victims changed their lives forever,” the police report says. “She told him that the boy’s life will never be the same because of what happened to them. … Jacqueline yelled at Jakaris and told him she hoped he never got one night of sleep and that he sees them every night when he tries to sleep.”

Police say that Jakaris’ fingerprints were found inside the victims’ home, but he denies having been there. He and three other teenage suspects have pleaded not guilty.

* * *

Mario’s childhood has made him think like an adult.

He gauges the quality of his mother’s working life by how much food is in the pantry. The thing he fears most is being poor, like the people he has seen sleeping on the grass. He imagines a future far from neighborhoods like this, with a big house and an open field where he can play ball with his son, if he has one.

“I want to live in a place where it’s safe for my kids,” he said. “I don’t need no problems.”

His family moved three years ago to Dunbar Village with its long, pastel-colored buildings, cracked walls and sagging clotheslines. Not long after, Mario’s father was shot dead on a street nearby.

Mario tries to avoid getting into fights. When he and a friend argued recently, Mario went home to think it over and decided to apologize. But opportunities for bad choices arise often. The other day on the basketball court beneath a searing sun, the ball hit one of Mario’s friends.

“How about I punch you in your face!” the boy yelled.

Mario threw the ball at him. They leaned into each other, half menacing, half embracing, until another boy intervened.

Mostly he plots his exit.

He wants to be a singer and dancer like his idol Chris Brown, an 18-year-old R&B star whose Web site describes him as a “hyperactive class clown, but focused on class work.” Last year, Mario’s grades plummeted and his mother encouraged him to do better. He raised them to A’s, B’s and C’s.

“I just thought about things I’d done, and the good things I should do,” he said. “I had all those chances. I should have done it.”

His mother knows it’s too early to predict Mario’s future. On a table in her living room stands a trophy Jakaris won when he was 11 for hip-hop dancing, Mario’s passion. Asked if she could guarantee that, in a few years, Mario won’t be in trouble, she said no.

“Because at 12, Jakaris was the same way Mario is,” she said. “With girls, we worry about babies and how long are they going to stay abstinent. And with the boys, you worry about the influence of other boys.”

Minor’s own record isn’t perfect. She was placed on probation for making a false statement to obtain public aid because she received benefits during an illness while her daughter stayed with a relative, she said. She repeatedly failed to come to court on a retail theft charge in her 20s, because, she said, she was “young and dumb.”

“That’s why I’m so firm with them. Because I know better,” she said. “That’s basically how I used to talk to Jakaris. I tell him all the time, ‘Jakaris, it’s so, so, so easy to walk into something you don’t want to be in, and it is so hard to walk away from.'”

For now, Mario has other priorities. A thin boy in a T-shirt that reaches almost to his knees, he walks to his twice-weekly dance class, where he back-flips and leaps as high as he is tall. In one routine, he plays the male lead, lifting a girl off the ground. He concentrates hard, cracking a smile of embarrassment when he grabs the girl around the waist.

Heading home, he crosses Tamarind, where lit-up storefronts advertise malt liquor and Lotto, and men in undershirts and gold chains linger on the sidewalk. He lies on his bed, twirling a basketball, one eye on SpongeBob SquarePants.

Downstairs, his mother is braiding his sister’s hair. Chicken waits in the oven, collard greens on the stove, fresh-baked corn bread on the counter. Mario sits down to eat by himself.

Afterward, he will wash his plate and fork. He will take out the garbage without being asked, walking to a Dumpster halfway between his house and the house where the woman was raped and the boy was beaten. Back inside, he will shut the door and sink into the couch and lie there for a while, exhausted from one more day of trying to grow up.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

First published in the St. Petersburg Times.

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Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.