Reported by Liku Zelleke
Rachel Jeantel was on the phone talking to Trayvon Martin during the last moments of his life on February 26th, 2012. That night, the 17-year-old would be shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the watchman that was supposed to protect him and the other residents of their gated community in Sanford, Florida.
Jeantel would become a key witness for the prosecution. Being a child of immigrant parents, she spoke Haitian Creole, Spanish and English, and during her testimonies it was, at times, pretty difficult to decipher exactly what it was she was saying.
The conversations she had with defense attorney Don West sometimes presented a spectacle of its own.
After a few misunderstandings that went back and forth, West asked her, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”
After a pause and a stare, Jeantel answered, “I don’t understand you. I do understand English.”
Later, when Jeantel was forced to admit that she couldn’t read a letter written in cursive, in addition to her spoken English and her mannerisms, she became the target of mocking on social media and in real life – something that would occur on a daily basis.
It had been reported that Jeantel and Martin were dating, but that was wrong. She says that they were just close friends and had been so since they met in second grade. He didn’t judge her and that was one of the many things that endeared him to her.
“He cared about you. That’s a good human,” her attorney said of Martin and added that the two teens had been talking about their futures moments before he was killed.
It was because of this irony that, when the trial was over in mid-July, Rod Vereen, a Miami defense and civil rights attorney took her under his wings.
“Rachel was in need, and the whole world was watching,” he said.
So, with financial backing from the Tom Joyner Foundation, Vereen, 52, hired three tutors, a psychologist and other mentors to help Jeantel. For nine months, the team tutored her after school – three hours a day and five to six days a week – until the girl who, whilst entering her senior year, was reading and doing math at an elementary school level was able to finally graduate.
Jeantel was handed her well-earned high school diploma, fulfilling the promise she said that she had made to Martin.
“I did it,” she said. “The witness who didn’t know how to speak English knows how to speak English through the 12th grade now. I never quit.”