Treatment resistant

A ‘village’ of mentors keeps Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, on track

Tom Joyner: “Did it work? The short answer to that is no.”

At first glance, the story of Jeantel and her “village” seemed to me to epitomize the principle I set forth in “Don’t come uninvited.”

Rachel Jeantel spoke with Trayvon Martin on the phone, minutes before George Zimmerman shot and killed him. At Zimmerman’s trial, she was compelled to testify about that conversation for two whole days. I’ll never understand why they required that much time.

The trial was nationally televised, and she herself quickly became much more the center of attention that anything about the trial. She personified the ugliest stereotypes of what some may call “ghetto trash.” She came off as obese, ill-mannered, ill-spoken, dysfluent, uneducated, dishonest and, above all, insolent. She referred to Zimmerman using a racial slur. Asked to read from a signed, handwritten statement she had given Trayvon’s mother, she replied, “I can’t read cursive.”

Alarmed, a small army of black professionals from around the country determined to intervene in her life, so as to transform her from a living commercial for racism into a model of upward mobility. Forming a team that called itself “the village,” they basically took over her upbringing. They provided tutoring and imposed a rigid schedule on her activities from day to day. Radio personality Tom Joyner committed to paying for her college education, should she go to college.

Age 20, she graduated from an alternative high school on May 30, 2014.

When the village meets now, Jeantel has a seat at the table. Some days she wants to go to fashion school, which Joyner’s foundation will not pay for. Other days she says, with a voice of fulsome determination, “I want that college degree.” …

Joyner won’t say how much the foundation has contributed to Jeantel’s care. “What matters is, did it work? The short answer to that is no,” Joyner says. Rachel graduated “not being motivated to get ready for the world.” Joyner wanted her college-ready — to get herself college ready. That’s what the foundation was paying for. “The educational system failed her, but here was an opportunity to do more than the system was offering her,” he says. “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.” The offer remains open.

Related but diametric: From homeless to Harvard

On the one hand, I’m writing this post on the premise that the experiment failed. On the other hand, I’m not so sure it did. Out of fairness to Jeantel, the charming young lady she may be today may display no trace of the rudeness that made her famous. College can’t teach that. Many people of all kinds just aren’t cut out for college, and no amount of effort and expense can make them so. Fashion school, no less than college, could lead to a bona fide career in which her gifts would contribute to society.

For me, the issue here isn’t race or poverty, but free will.

At first glance, the story of Jeantel and her “village” seemed to me to epitomize the principle I set forth in “Don’t come uninvited.” The interlopers came to Jeantel and her mother with pre-set notions of what her goals should be in life. They weren’t asked, and they didn’t ask.

In 1976, Michael McDonald summed up millions’ similar response to the War on Poverty:

You’re telling me the things you’re going to do for me.
I’m not blind, and I don’t like what I think I see.

In medicine and in prayer, the term “treatment resistant” applies to a patient who is determined not to get well. Practitioners will meet no end of frustration until they accept that such patients exist. No amount of time, energy or resources will bring about a change that the patient doesn’t want.

In fact, the same dynamic plays out anytime one person seeks to impose on another person goals that aren’t congruent with that person’s own. Free will wins out every time.

Related: “I’m not changing my lifestyle.”

(Originally posted 07/05/14.)

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