Jesse Ray Beard said he was constantly in trouble, even when he behaved. It took being accused of the racially charged attempted murder of a white classmate in the Deep South to turn his life around.
Beard, 18, now interns at a New York law firm as he prepares for his senior year next month at Canterbury School, a Connecticut prep academy where Beard is highly regarded among peers and teachers.
“I didn’t change the way I act. I didn’t do nothing different. It was just
Alan Howard met Beard, the youngest of the African-American teens who made up the Jena Six, in January 2008 when he began representing him in a lawsuit filed by beating victim Justin Barker.
The fight followed months of disquiet among Jena High School students, including off-campus skirmishes, a school arson and nooses hung from a campus tree.
In September 2007, thousands of protesters, alleging the teens were treated harshly because they were black, converged on middle Louisiana.
Protesters were particularly angered at the jailing of Mychal Bell, one of the six, who was charged as an adult. Later in September, he was reclassified as a juvenile and released.
The Jena Six were lionized and vilified; donations for their defense poured in, as did threats on their lives.
Howard said his first impression of Beard — that he had “tremendous character, tremendous resilience and tremendous potential” — was so strong he invited the teen to live with his family in New England.
It’s been a tidal shift, Beard said, moving from a Louisiana town of 3,000 to Bedford, New York, a well-to-do city of 18,000 situated an hour north of the Big Apple.
The biggest shock? “Where I’m from in Jena, I think the only time it snowed is when I was 6, and it was like 1 inch.”
that I was at Canterbury instead of Jena,” he said. “It was like Jena was out to get me — and not just me, but other people, too.”
If not for the controversy surrounding the Jena Six and the palpable racial tension in the Louisiana town, Beard never would have met the attorney who changed the course of Beard’s life by removing him from everything he knew.