I had planned to write this column about Viola Davis, because, well, what a role model she is, rising from Central Falls poverty to A-list Hollywood actress, with her new memoir, “Finding Me,” a top seller on Amazon.
My approach was going to be a glimpse of Viola through her sister Deloris Grant, who still lives in Rhode Island.
The two are close, Viola now 56 and Deloris 58.
Of course, some of this will indeed touch on Viola.
But I’m shifting my focus.
Because, after I chatted with Deloris this week, she stood out to me as an equally important role model.
Among the unsung heroes in American life are teachers who stand a post in urban schools. It’s not an easy job, and many move on from it.
Deloris is among those who’ve remained committed for decades. She’s been a high school teacher in Central Falls for 25 years. Her subjects are Advanced Placement English and, no surprise, drama.
Deloris and Viola were into acting even as kids. It helped get them through.
More:Viola Davis wins an Oscar
When still elementary school age, they won a skit contest in the city’s Jenks Park. And they used to play characters in their kitchen, a favorite being a pair of rich ladies based on Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The two are still in “theater,” Viola on screen and Deloris directing high school plays, currently the Greek tragedy “Medea.”
Deloris lives in Lincoln with her husband, Peter Grant, who runs a firm that wires buildings for computers.
I told her I might have thought that the sister of an Oscar-winning actress wouldn’t still be working in Central Falls.
“Oh no,” said Deloris, “I don’t look at life like that at all. I like returning here every day. I know the families. I get a sense of kinship with the community.”
Having struggled in poverty herself, she relates to some of the kids who do the same.
“I see myself in these children,” said Deloris.
But she says Central Falls High has a lot of spirit, and high performers, and she loves that it’s a United Nations, her students coming from places like Guatemala, Honduras and Africa.
More:Viola Davis donates $10,000 to Central Falls High
I asked what percentage of the school is people of color, and she gave an answer that set me straight.
“I don’t see race or ethnicity,” she said, “I just like to get to know the kids as people.”
Most, she says, work hard. Over her 25 years, Deloris has seen some become doctors and lawyers, and one, Theresa Matos Agonia, now chief of external affairs for the City of Providence, was Miss Rhode Island USA in 2016.
Deloris and Viola were among six kids, mostly raised in a rundown building on Washington Street that was loaded with rats and eventually condemned.
Their mom, Mary Alice, was a maid and their dad a horse groomer and janitor.
Viola honestly wrote in the book about her father, who died in 2006, having a phase as an abusive alcoholic, but he overcame it, and she’s forgiven him.
I asked Deloris about him, and she prefers to remember the side of her dad that worked hard, and how all of them had fun as a family.
The abuse is something the Davis family had rarely talked about before the book, and Deloris is aware that both her colleagues and some students will read it, which she admits is a bit uncomfortable.
But it’s her family’s truth, and to Deloris, the message is one of perseverance and overcoming through education. That was the way up for Viola, who got a theater scholarship to Rhode Island College and went on to the prestigious Juilliard School of performing arts.
Deloris herself has a Ph.D. in education from RIC, and her daughter Anabella is studying for a doctorate in history at the University of Southern California.
Deloris credits her mom, Mary Alice, who is about to turn 79 and still lives in Rhode Island, for always emphasizing school.
When people ask Mary Alice if she’s proud of her famous Oscar-winning daughter Viola, she has a standard reply.
“I’m proud of all my kids.”
Having met Deloris, and learning of her 25 years teaching at Central Falls High, I understand why.