Jada Pinkett Smith knew that she’d have to keep it real when she came back to her hometown of Baltimore.
How could she be anything less than honest when she spoke in front of people who’d known her since she was in the eighth grade, including the former classmate who almost got expelled with her from the Baltimore School for the Arts after a prank went awry?
“These streets taught me so much, through the sun and through the rain,” Pinkett Smith, 52, said Wednesday while addressing the student body, staff, and donors of her alma mater.
“Baltimore has been good to me. It prepared me for all the things I was confronted with in my journey to Los Angeles. It is where I learned how to raise my kids. I’m grateful for it all.”
Pinkett Smith was greeted by the overwhelming sound of 500 voices chanting “JADA! JADA! JADA!” Joining the actor on stage was her 22-year-old musician daughter, Willow Smith, who first achieved pop stardom at age 10 when her single, “Whip My Hair” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The mother and daughter duo were in town promoting Pinkett Smith’s new memoir, “Worthy,” which was released Tuesday. Following the appearance at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Pinkett Smith stopped by the Enoch Pratt Free Library to chat about her autobiography with Laura Coates, an anchor and chief legal analyst for CNN. After about 45 minutes, her husband, Will Smith, joined her on stage, having just returned from Papua New Guinea, he said.
“I just really wanted to come out and just be here and hold it down for you the way you have held it down for me,” Will Smith said in a surprise appearance Wednesday night at the Pratt. “We have had a very, very long and tumultuous [relationship]. We call it brutiful.”
Pinkett Smith grew up on Price Avenue in the Pimlico neighborhood, and as a teen, she said she hung out in the Coldspring and Dolfield communities. She participated in dance battles, partied at such popular clubs as Cignel, Odell’s Nightclub, and Godfrey’s Famous Ballroom, and (according to her memoir) sold drugs in the Cherry Hill neighborhood.
“I got many different stomping grounds here in Baltimore City,” she said.
But it’s clear that the school holds a special place in Pinkett Smith’s heart. She and her husband donated $1 million to the School for the Arts in 2006 through the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, on top of a previous contribution of $112,500.
In addition, Willow Smith made her own $50,000 donation last year to her mother’s alma mater, executive director Rosiland Cauthen said.
“I had so many teachers that always believed in me,” Pinkett Smith said, “because you know, I wasn’t always on the straight and narrow path. The faculty here kept me focused and helped me graduate. They kept reminding me of what my possibilities were.”
When Pinkett Smith walked into the school auditorium and caught sight of Denise Diggs, she let out a big yell and the two women embraced.
Diggs, 72, met Pinkett Smith when young Jada was in the eighth grade and was participating in TWIGS, an after-school arts program for elementary school students. Diggs later taught Pinkett Smith during her freshman year at the School for the Arts. She continues to teach voice at the high school to this day.
“Even at that young age, Jada was very, very confident,” Diggs said.
“When she was in the ninth grade, Jada told me that she was going to be a star. And she wasn’t bragging. She said it like she really believed it.”
Other former teachers and classmates also recalled Pinkett’s confidence and charisma. Cory Washburn, who graduated from the school with Pinkett in 1989, recalls playing hooky with her to visit the actor Josh Charles, who at the time was living in New York.
Pinkett Smith had known Charles since both were in elementary school, and he had just been cast in a small part in John Waters’ movie, “Hairspray.”
“At age 9,” Pinkett Smith writes in her memoir, “Josh Charles had swag and was the coolest white dude we knew. It seemed like an excellent idea that we should head to New York to hang out with Josh and learn the ways of having a real-deal gig in show business.”
Washburn recalls that train tickets were cheaper on Thursdays, so the pair decided to cut class for the day. Pinkett Smith concocted an elaborate cover story about traveling to the Big Apple to participate in a class field trip.
“She told the most crazy lie,” Washburn recalled.
“But someone ratted us out. We were in so much trouble. We almost got kicked out of school. Jada basically begged Donald Hicken [former head of the school’s theater department] not to expel us.”
When Washburn thinks about that escapade now, she recalls her classmate’s magnetism.
“Jada was tiny,” she said, “but she had such a big personality you expected her to be 7 feet tall.”
Questions about Pinkett Smith’s marital life have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. The actor reveals in her memoir that she and Smith were separated for six years — but have recently grown closer and are working to repair their relationship.
Though the students asked Pinkett Smith lots of questions, no one asked about that. Instead, they wanted to know tricks of the trade: how hard she had to work to master her craft, how she handled negative publicity.
“I was surprised by how relatable she was,” said Jadynce Blowe, 18, a high school senior and theater major.
“You always expect celebrities to be larger than life. But she went out of her way to be humble.”
Pinkett Smith might have been willing to share the spotlight. Nonetheless, her former classmate Becky Mossing recalls that she was never out of it for very long.
Now the head of the high school’s theater program, Mossing was a year behind Pinkett Smith in school.
She remembers a 1988 production of the musical play “Marat/Sade.” Pinkett Smith, a junior at the time, had a minor role.
“Somehow, Jada became the star of the opening scene,” Mossing recalled.
“All she did was stand next to the actor who had the starring role and kind of nestle up to him. But she had such charisma, you couldn’t stop looking at her.
“We wondered: How how is it possible for someone to be so adorable and so natural and to still take over the entire show?”