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Rachel Jeantel: “I’m still standing.”

By Jazelle Hunt/NNPA Washington Correspondent
On June 23, 2014
Roderick Vereen and Rachel Jeantel

Jeantel (right) poses with her attorney/mentor at her graduation.

WASHINGTON – As Rachel Jeantel’s high school graduation neared, she reminded herself of the promise she was keeping. Her slain friend, Trayvon Martin, would have wanted her to finish school, and she had promised his parents and other supporters that she would do it. And she did.

The world met Jeantel during the investigation of Martin’s murder. It was disclosed that she was the last person to speak to him before he was killed by George Zimmerman.

Over the course of two days, she testified as a key witness in the trial, withstanding questioning that lasted for six hours. She faced a storm of opinions, analyses, and judgments made about her – some accurate, some not.

At the time, she was just a teenager thrown into the spotlight in the midst of a personal and national tragedy. It has become a chapter of her life she doesn’t like to talk about, referring to it in solemn tones as “the situation.”

Just last year, Jeantel wanted nothing more than to be left alone. She was grieving and feeling guilty, choosing not to attend Martin’s funeral.

“I was running from Sybrina [Fulton],” she said referring to Martin’s mother. “I wasn’t ready to face her. I didn’t want to talk about it.”

She was traveling constantly for questioning as part of FBI, law enforcement, and legal investigations, thus missing a lot of school.

“Nobody knew where I was. I’d lie about where I’d been every time somebody brought up Trayvon, and they would always bring it up in school [that he had been on the phone]. I’d deny saying it was me,” said Jeantel. “All the traveling and talking to the FBI was too much on me, and I was doing it by myself. I still wanted my normal life.”

That normalcy never quite returned. She still gets recognized at Wal-Mart, and sometimes people want to take pictures. Sometimes they’re too nervous to approach her, and send their children to ask instead. She shrugs off the attention: “For now, I just deal with it.”

Another adjustment has been the tidal wave of Black men and women who emerged to mentor, uplift, and prepare the now 20-year-old Jeantel as she transitions to college and womanhood. It began with her attorney, Roderick Vereen, who ushered Jeantel through the media spotlight after Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. He remains a fatherly figure in her life.

His assistant, Rose Reeder, manages Jeantel’s scheduling. Vereen’s friend, Karen Andre, also a lawyer, stepped up as a mentor. Miami-Dade School Board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall arranged for her to transfer to the Academy for Community Education, a small, attentive alternative high school where principal, Deborah Carter took Jeantel under her wing.

“I was not used to that. It was a lot of people. I could never sneak around, I couldn’t go no place!” she said, laughing and sighing with appreciative resignation.

Once, one of her tutors visited her home and she invited him in to say hello to her parents, who speak limited English. He greeted them in fluent Creole, much to Jeantel’s chagrin. For the self-proclaimed “spoiled-brat daddy’s girl” who was used to having her way, this new team of no-nonsense adults – who could report directly to her parents without her translation – were not initially welcome.

Jeantel has even reunited with Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who she calls her “number one supporters.” Fulton attended her graduation, and was one of the people cheering her across the stage.

With her tutors, Jeantal is focused on vocabulary, grammar, and mathematic skills. With her mentors, she’s focused on her well-being and gaining the necessary life skills to become independent. This summer she hopes to get a job. When her academic skills are up to par, she’ll enroll in college. In the far future, she sees a college degree and a creative career, ideally in fashion design.

“I’m grateful for Trayvon and everyday when I work hard or have the smack-down on me, I just say if he was here, he would say ‘keep going.’”

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