People around the country rooted for Viola Davis on Oscar’s Night, recognizing her as “The Help’s” gutsy black maid, the household servant of an annoyingly-entitled, self-indulgent white woman who suffered humiliation at the end for her abysmal treatment of others. It was a shining example of “What goes around, comes around.”
We Rhode Islanders got to see a similar instance of karma, in another arena, and Viola Davis played a significant role in that, as well. As such, she was more than an actress; she’d become a heroine to teachers everywhere.
Why? She never forgot the importance of her teachers in her journey to fame. Even better, in the days following her riotous emergence on the national screen, she made known to the world her gratitude to them. Her action stood in dark contrast to others.
It’s an instance of delicious irony.
Two years ago, the country was focused on a particularly vitriolic event in one of Rhode Island’s poorest of towns. What befell the teachers at Central Falls High School became fodder for national news as the Central Falls School Board, following the recommendation of Superintendent Frances Gallo, took an action many would cite as ‘the bravest of stands,’ showing how things ‘should be done.’
Quite simply, they fired the entire teaching force at that high school when test results proved that students failed abysmally. That broad brush stroke was heralded, across the nation, as the blueprint for a new “Get tough” policy regarding teachers. And the state’s Department of Education’s new no-nonsense director, Deborah Gist, applauded the action.
All 19 teachers and staff were hatcheted, along with their principal—no matter what their work records…their individual contributions over many years… their circumstances. They were lumped together, as ‘undeserving’ and pink-slipped.
News media across the country went wild.
Public reaction was swift and unsympathetic: “We’ll teach those ne’er-do-wells who get fat at the public trough.” “We’ll show them we won’t tolerate poor results” became the war-cry of newly-empowered administrative force across the nation, brandishing “No Child Left Behind,” and “Race to the Top” as weapons.
Those most vocal never considered that the town of Central Falls is one of the poorest in Rhode Island, one whose students primarily come from broken or disadvantaged homes. As such, many are Ill-prepared for a day of learning.
But no one foresaw the pushback event that would come on the heels of a Viola Davis moment of glory two years later.
For, the very woman who vied with Meryl Streep for 2012’s Best Actress in a major movie graduated from that very high school. In a recent interview, Viola’s Mom states that her daughter applied herself and maximized her experience there, playing roles in various theatrical venues, availing herself of the considerable help of her teachers.
The result? Viola Davis graduated from Central Falls High School and Rhode Island College with a Bachelor of Arts in theatre. She credits her teachers with their significant contribution on her journey.
Now, Viola Davis had the inordinate misfortune of competing for “Best Actress” in a year when Meryl Streep portrayed Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of England, in “The Iron Lady.” The Sweep portrayal of a woman of worldwide stature just about guaranteed the nod go to her. And it did.
But Ms. Davis won big in another category, for she showed us karma works, as many noted the irony: “Didn’t she go to that school where all the teachers were fired?”
In years past, Ms. Davis shared her school’s troubles with co-star Streep in the 2008 movie, “Doubt,” (for which Viola was Oscar-nominated for her supporting role). Now, on the heels of Streep’s 2012 Oscar win, and in consideration of her competitor’s talent, that actress honored Viola Davis by donating $10,000, to the Segue Institute for Learning, a Central Falls charter school that emerged from the ashes of Central Falls High School’s troubles.
Yes, Viola Davis has star power now….But she never forgot how she achieved it.
And all this former teacher can say is “Thank you for remembering who helped you on your journey.” You underscore the power of good teachers everywhere, giving those sorely-challenged today, the impetus to carry on.