In the summer of 1986, Christopher Wallace, better known as rapper The Notorious B.I.G, worked as a counselor at my temple, Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim. Only 14 at the time, he helped with the youngest children, in the Early Childhood Center, alongside his mother, Voletta Wallace, who for years was a revered preschool teacher in the program. “That’s how Christopher ended up here,” my former preschool teacher, Jaci Israel, told me, “when you teach, you bring in your kids, to give them something to do.”
At the time, Jaci taught alongside Voletta at the ECC (today Jaci is the program’s director) and remembers Christopher, “being really fun with the kids but equally at ease with the adults. A good kid, you know. He was sweet, a very charming personality.”
The temple would’ve been a decent commute for Biggie, who grew in Bed-Stuy (Clinton Hill, if you’re looking to lose a fight) at 26 St. James Pl., about a 30 minute walk from Beth Elohim.
Voletta worked at Beth Elohim for years, a well-respected teacher. “She was lovely,” Jaci recalled, “a constant professional. We all looked up to her. She was graceful, very sweet, well-spoken – the families loved her. Voletta was impeccably dressed, I was always so impressed she didn’t get paint all over her clothes.”
“I didn’t work with him [Christopher], but I knew who he was because of Voletta,” remembers Laura Occhiogrosso, who was and still is a teacher in Voletta’s former program (she taught me, age two), “I talked to him maybe twice, like, ‘where’s the snacks’ or something.”
When Laura realized who he’d become, and saw his picture, “I couldn’t even recognize the face, and I’m usually very good with faces. When he was a CIT [Counselor In Training] in camp he was a skinny thing.”
After a time, Voletta stopped working at Beth Elohim, but Jaci still ran into her occasionally. “Voletta was a really strong woman, you know, raising a kid by herself,” Jaci said. “She was a single, African American woman raising her son – she was bound and determined to give him a good education. We’d chat and say hi, she was saying Christopher was falling in with the wrong crowd. Typical teenage stuff, but things mothers worry about.”
When, 20 years ago to this day – March 9th, 1997 – Biggie Smalls was murdered in Los Angeles, Jaci was shocked. “When it hit the headlines that he’d been killed someone told me, ‘you know that was Christopher’. I didn’t know that he was this big gangster rapper. I haven’t seen Voletta since. When the movie about his life came out a bunch of us went to see it together.”
Other current staff at CBE including Afterschool and Camps Director Bobbie Finkelstein, who worked there back in the 80s’, also recalled Voletta, but few remembered her son. Indeed, that The Notorious B.I.G. spent a summer working with children at a reformed temple in Park Slope is far from a well-known local fact. Even within the temple community, most people are unaware.
“One time I took a picture of Christopher’s working papers because my own children didn’t believe me,” Jaci laughed, “they wanted to put it on Instagram.”
A few years ago, cleaning out the classroom Biggie had worked in that summer, his old name tag surfaced.