Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman back in 2012, and his good friend Rachel Jeantel spent the last moments of the teen’s life with him–on his cell phone–following the incident. On Friday Jeantel fulfilled a promise she made to Trayvon Martin before he died–she graduated from high school. Trayvon’s mother was there for the ceremony.
There’s more to simply having graduated from high school for Rachel Jeantel, however. A witness in the Travon Martin case, she drew criticism and even ridicule during her time on the witness stand. Rachel’s speech and demeanor at that time detracted from her testimony. Speaking a combination of Haitian Creole, Spanish, and English, court reporters and jurors alike often struggled to decipher what the teenager was saying. She had one particularly memorable exchange with George Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West.
“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” West asked Jeantel.
She paused and simply stared at the defense attorney.
“I don’t understand you. I do understand English,” Jeantel replied.
Jeantel was later forced to admit she had great difficulty reading and that she couldn’t read a letter that was written in cursive handwriting. Soon her mannerisms and her version of spoken English was mocked on social media.
“They called her everything except the child of God,” said Rod Vereen, a Miami defense and civil rights attorney. “Of course she was frustrated. It was like stepping into an arena, and you don’t know the rules.”
The civil rights attorney and Jeantel met prior to the Trayvon Martin murder trial when a member of her church asked him if he would represent her. He says he tried his best to prepare Rachel for the trial but he had no clue what the defense’s strategy would be. He understood the relationship between Trayvon and Rachel–a friendship that began in the first grade–was one that had been misrepresented. The two weren’t dating as many media outlets reported.
“He cared about you,” Jeantel said. “That’s a good human.”
When the trial was over Vereen knew he had to do something to help Rachel.
“Rachel was in need, and the whole world was watching,” he said.
Rod Vereen soon assembled a team of three tutors, a psychologist and other mentors to work with Jeantel. She was entering her senior year but was still only reading and doing math at an elementary-school level. For nine months Rachel received after-school tutoring three hours a day five to six days a week.
“When they say it takes a village to raise a child, this is what has happened here,” Vereen said. “Getting her down that aisle has not been an easy task. Rachel is just like any other teenager. They want to buck the system sometimes, and you just can’t let them buck the system.”
When she marched at graduation on Friday, Rachel Jeantel was a much different young woman than the one who appeared at her late friend’s murder trial.
“I did it,” Jeantel said. “The witness who didn’t know how to speak English knows how to speak English through the 12th grade now. I never quit.”
Sybrina Fulton–Trayvon Martin’s mom–watched her receive her diploma.
“Her coming is like having Trayvon there saying, ‘You did it. You proved people wrong,’” Rachel told reporters.
She also said her graduating “is just the beginning of my life.”
“When people see Rachel Jeantel now, I want them to say, ‘Wow, there was something good that came out of something so tragic,’” Rod Vereen added.
Trayvon Martin is no doubt looking down on his young friend with pride. Hopefully Rachel Jeantel goes on and does something wonderful with her life–something Trayvon Martin cannot do.
For now she is still working with tutors in her efforts to complete a pre-college curriculum. She has hopes of one day becoming a clothing designer. Do you suppose she might even use Trayvon’s name on her designs?
Image via YouTube