The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jay-Z is known for his words. Meet the sixth-grade teacher he credits with his love of language.

Jay-Z performs at Bercy stadium in Paris in October 2013. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
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Before he was rap mogul Jay-Z, and before he was a teenage drug dealer, he was Shawn Carter — a quiet, withdrawn kid who read far beyond his grade level and was grappling with the trying circumstances of growing up fatherless and poor in New York’s Marcy Projects.

As the rapper tells it, in grade school, he found something of an escape in language. He’s 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 Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, and she remembers Jay-Z as well, though she still refers to him as Shawn.

Rosenblum-Lowden, 77, now lives in Columbia, Md., 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,” Rosenblum-Lowden told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “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 Rosenblum-Lowden’s favorite lessons, in which she would ask the class a question using a word that was likely beyond their vocabulary. To answer the question — to even understand it — the students 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.”

“The fact that that made an impression on him was very cool,” she said.

Rosenblum-Lowden first learned 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, she said, “I didn’t know Shawn was Jay-Z at that time.”

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She didn’t make the connection until she read a 1999 Teen People profile of Jay-Z that she realized he and Shawn Carter were one in the same.

In the piece, Jay-Z called Rosenblum-Lowden “someone who helped turn my life around.”

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

He’s mentioned the field trip in various interviews, including the one with Letterman. 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 said. “And then I thought it’d be fun for them to come up to my apartment.”

So 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,’” Carter told Letterman. “She gettin’.”

That he remembers the moment brings joy to Rosenblum-Lowden.

“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. And I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that he would remember that,” she said. “It made such an impression on me, but I never imagined it made such an impression on him.”

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 his family after becoming addicted to heroin, as he told Letterman.

“I remember him as the kid who never smiled,” Rosenblum-Lowden said. She believes in using humor in the classroom, and 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 first saw him again, I didn’t recognize him until he smiled. And there he was: Shawn.”

The two don’t keep in touch, but they spoke after the Teen People profile. Rosenblum-Lowden reached out to the magazine and asked if they 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’s equally proud of her students who found success in other careers, but there’s a certain sense of pride that comes with having affected a young Jay-Z — particularly when he uses his national profile to advocate for 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 for words.”

That said, there is one thing she, as a lover of the New York Mets, would do different, given the chance. 

“If I had known he was a Yankees fan,” she joked, “he never would have gotten into seventh grade.”

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