The teacher who turned Jay-Z's life around

Rap mogul Jay-Z (far left) says he connected with his sixth-grade teacher, Ms Renee Rosenblum-Lowden (left), who instilled in him a love of words.
Rap mogul Jay-Z (above) says he connected with his sixth-grade teacher, Ms Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, who instilled in him a love of words.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, RENEE LOWDEN
Rap mogul Jay-Z (far left) says he connected with his sixth-grade teacher, Ms Renee Rosenblum-Lowden (left), who instilled in him a love of words.
Rap mogul Jay-Z says he connected with his sixth-grade teacher, Ms Renee Rosenblum-Lowden (above), who instilled in him a love of words.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, RENEE LOWDEN

The rapper, who was withdrawn and fatherless, bonded with his grade school teacher over ice cubes and reading

NEW Y0RK • Before he was rap mogul Jay-Z and before he was a teenage drug dealer, he was Shawn Carter - a withdrawn kid who read far beyond his grade level and was grappling with growing up fatherless in New York's Marcy Projects.

As the rapper tells it, in grade school, he found something of an escape in language. He has mentioned this in interviews throughout his career, most recently telling David Letterman: "I had a sixth-grade teacher. Her name was Ms Lowden and I just loved the class so much. Like reading the dictionary and my love of words - I just connected with her."

That teacher's name is Ms Renee Rosenblum-Lowden and she remembers Jay-Z, 48, as well, though she still refers to him as Shawn.

The 77-year-old now lives in Maryland, but in 1980, she taught sixth grade at Brooklyn's I.S. 318. Carter, a shy and avid reader, was one of her standout students.

"The thing I remember about Shawn is he took the reading test and he scored 12th grade in the sixth grade. And I remember telling him - because I really feel it's important to tell kids they're smart - I said: 'You're smart. You better do well.' And he listened."

They connected over one of her favourite lessons, in which she would ask a question using a word that was likely beyond the pupils' vocabulary. To answer the question - to even understand it - they had to use a dictionary.

She would ask things such as: "What does a loquacious person like to do?" and the students would "have to look it up to answer it".

I remember him as the kid who never smiled. 

MS RENEE ROSENBLUM-LOWDEN, who said making the young Jay-Z smile was always one of her goals

She learnt of the rapper Jay-Z when she began teaching about prejudice in rap lyrics. Students would bring in his songs as examples of sexism. But "I didn't know Shawn was Jay-Z at that time".

She did not make the connection until she read a 1999 Teen People profile of the rapper that she realised he and Carter were one and the same. In the piece, he described the teacher as "someone who helped turn my life around".

"She took our class to her house in Brooklyn on a field trip," he said. "You know many teachers who'd take a bunch of black kids to their house?"

Ms Rosenblum-Lowden said she remembers it well. She had taken the class to the New York Transit Museum, which was near her home in Brooklyn Heights.

"We walked to the promenade and saw the skyline," she added. "And then, I thought it'd be fun for them to come up to my apartment."

She brought them up, an experience that stuck with Carter long after he became famous for several reasons, including what his teacher kept in her kitchen.

"She had ice in the refrigerator, way back when no one had it and I thought, 'Oh man, I might be an English teacher,'" he told Letterman.

His former teacher said: "I remember when he came to my apartment. There were all these tough kids who sat with their arms folded.

"I remember he and another kid staring at my refrigerator. I never dreamt in my wildest dreams that he would remember that."

While the two may have bonded over words and ice cubes, there was a darker side to the young Carter.

It was a difficult period in his life, right around the time his father left the family after becoming addicted to heroin, as he told Letterman.

"I remember him as the kid who never smiled," Ms Rosenblum-Lowden said. Making Carter smile was always one of her goals. A sense of accomplishment accompanied every grin. Those pearly whites have stuck with her during the past few decades.

"He was a skinny little kid," she said. "He's totally different looking. When I saw him again, I didn't recognise him until he smiled. And there he was: Shawn."

The two do not keep in touch, but they spoke after the Teen People profile. She reached out to the magazine and asked if it could put her in touch with him.

"Five minutes later, he called," she said. "He was 12 years old again, calling me Ms Lowden."

She said she is equally proud of her students who found success in other careers, but there is a certain sense of pride that comes with having influenced a young Jay-Z - particularly when he uses his national profile to advocate better teacher wages, as he did in the Letterman interview.

"One thing that I feel uncomfortable with is all the credit he gives me. I don't think I'm deserving of all that credit. He was super bright," she said.

Still, "it makes me feel great that I had a part, or that he feels I had a part, in his love of words".

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2018, with the headline 'The teacher who turned Jay-Z's life around'. Print Edition | Subscribe