Rachel Jeantel, star witness in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, was asked in Seminole Circuit Court in Sanford, Florida this week to read from a letter that she allegedly "wrote" to Mr. Martin's mother. The letter detailed what Ms. Jeantel allegedly heard while on the phone with the late Mr. Martin moments before he was fatally shot by 29-year-old defendant George Zimmerman.
However, when prompted in court, Ms. Jeantel couldn't read that letter.
Though she pored over the page, Ms. Jeantel could not, in fact, read one word outside her own name, the date, and the words "thank you."
In explaining her difficulties, Ms. Jeantel, a 19-year-old rising senior at Miami Norland High School, claimed, "I can't read cursive."
The heartbreaking spectacle of Ms. Jeantel being unable to read her own words in this most public of murder trials -- an admission that could damage the appeal of this critical witness -- brought tears to my eyes. I felt her shame and helplessness so profoundly that I had to look deeper.
How could a 19-year-old woman, raised in America's public education system -- on the verge of graduating high school no less -- be unable to read her own words? Surely, Ms. Jeantel must have been nervous and distraught from having to testify about an emotionally difficult subject under cross-examination in a packed, charged courtroom -- with millions watching via TV -- while still mourning the loss of her late "friend." Surely, it must truthfully be a case where Ms. Jeantel cannot read handwriting, but can read non-cursive writing. After all, most students in the digital age are not taught handwriting anymore. Surely, her courtroom difficulties were not because she is unable to read her own writing in any form.
And, surely, in a country, in an age, where we hear daily exhortations that America must no longer pass along those failing to keep up, in an America of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the wide embrace of Common Core standards, surely in this America, Obama's America, we would never again allow any of our precious children to make it all the way to senior year of high school unable to read their own words. Surely, we would never again tolerate such "soft bigotry of low expectations."
According to several news reports, and the comments of several black leaders, it is distinctly possible that Ms. Jeantel cannot consistently read standard English at any level, let alone the grade level we demand as a requirement for graduation. That does not mean Ms. Jeantel is completely illiterate. After all, say her vociferous defenders, she does have a suddenly scrubbed Twitter account. Moreover, we've learned that she speaks Spanish and Haitian Creole.
However, Ms. Jeantel's command of written English is shaky at best. That is not even open to debate, especially after we learned that the letter she "wrote" was actually dictated by Ms. Jeantel to someone else.
How can this be? How did this happen?
First, we should look to Ms. Jeantel. Surely somewhere in the last 14 or so years of public schooling, she has had a chance to learn basic reading.
Nevertheless, in all such cases of gross academic and cultural failure, there is a wider cast of culprits. Naturally, this starts with the Miami-Dade County principals, teachers, and counselors, who year after year seemed to have passed Ms Jeantel along. And there's the district superintendent, and other education personnel, who clearly failed to monitor her progress, set clear bright lines for excellence, and provide meaningful carrots and, yes, sticks, to insure that excellence.
And one also has to blame the Trayvon Martin legal team, who put the last person on earth (besides George Zimmerman) to talk with Trayvon Martin on the witness stand for two days and never once previously checked whether she could read the very letter she had dictated. Is that because they thought it would be "culturally insensitive" or "racist" to ascertain whether Rachel Jeantel could read? Is not their failure to perform this minor bit of due diligence -- and to take pains in the year and a quarter since Mr. Martin's tragic death to insure that Ms. Jeantel could publicly read just one short document -- grounds for legal malpractice?
Regardless of your political, ethnic or pedagogical persuasion, if you want to know what's wrong with American education, you simply have to look at how Rachel Jeantel was passed along every step of the way right down to the most important two days in her life. Now when she could have done the most good for the departed Trayvon Martin and his devastated family, her vital testimoney was undercut.
There are many parties to this travesty, but ultimately the blame rests with us. We are enabling such abject educational failure by not caring enough to enforce our own edicts for excellence. We are to blame because we would rather give a passing grade for just showing up, instead of doing the far harder and politically courageous thing: denying the sundry perks of modern America -- all kinds of government assistance, a drivers license, a cell phone, a Twitter account, the right to "get high" -- unless you get your academic act together. That's what real compassion, real parenting, real leadership is about.
Yes, despite her mangled syntax, her myriad prevarications, and her seeming inability to read English, let alone properly write it, the relatively likable, authentic Rachel Jeantel may still be a credible witness in the trial of the zealous neighborhood watchman. But are we a credible witness for education reform, if, after seeing such stark academic failure, we continue to enable its existence?