The actor, who was only two years younger than 6-year-old Ruby Bridges at the time, says she still feels her teacher clasping her hand even today.
Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Barbara Howard, the no-nonsense kindergarten teacher on the hit series "Abbott Elementary," is sharing how her own kindergarten teacher impacted her life. Ralph was in primary school at a time when racial tensions were high and the push for desegregation in public schools was still controversial. The actor, who was only two years younger than 6-year-old Ruby Bridges – the first Black student to attend an all-white school in 1960 – at the time, recalled a small action from her teacher that had a profound impact on her.
"This young woman held my hand," she told TODAY. "This is a young white woman in Waterbury, Connecticut. I'm a child of the '60s, and the idea that your teacher holding you close, no matter your color, spoke volumes to me."
The Emmy Winner attended Driggs Elementary School in Waterbury, Connecticut, and said that she even remembers the scent of her teacher. "I remember her very well," Ralph said. "Her name was Ms. Spencer. She was very young. She always smelled of lovely perfume. It was probably something called 'Joy' because I remember my mother wearing that perfume."
She added, "I can still feel it to this day. I'm left-handed, and I still feel it and see where I stood with that teacher." In her Disney+ hit series "Abbott Elementary," Ralph portrays similar qualities to her kindergarten teacher, whom she remembered as kind, patient and understanding.
We are the change we need! Today I spoke with an inspiring group of educators and advocates for public education—alongside @thesherylralph. I don't know about you, but my heart is full. Together we will ensure every student has access to the education they deserve. #ThankATeacher pic.twitter.com/NmGi9eK42m— Becky Pringle (@BeckyPringle) May 7, 2023
As May 8 marks the beginning of Teacher Appreciation Week, Ralph hopes to help teachers like Ms. Spencer to meet their student's needs. She has teamed up with the Sonic Foundation to match up to $1.5 million in public donations sent through DonorsChoose.org on May 9.
The initiative features wish lists from public school teachers across the country on its website and teachers are given full discretion on how they allocate the money raised for them. “I wish they didn’t have to do it, but I’m glad they are doing it,” said Ralph. She added that kindergarten teachers need more resources like paper, crayons and rugs. “We need those things for students who need the comfort of their own space to go to sometimes just to get themselves together,” she explained.
The series creator and executive producer of "Abbott Elementary," Quinta Brunson, announced in 2022 that the show's production team and ABC decided to reallocate money from the show’s marketing budget to buy school supplies for teachers.
"We chose to put the marketing money toward supplies for teachers,” the 32-year-old revealed during an interview with NPR. Brunson’s mom, a teacher for 40 years at a school and lacked sufficient resources. This was what inspired her to create "Abbott Elementary."
"Despite it getting harder, teachers not having all the support they need, and kids growing even more unruly than they have been in recent times, she still loved the job,” the writer said of her mother. "The beauty is someone being so resilient for a job that is so underpaid and so underappreciated because it makes them feel fulfilled."
Brunson has named the show after her 6th-grade teacher, Ms. Abbott, who had helped her adapt when she switched to Ms. Abbott’s school after spending five years at the school where her mom taught. “I was scared to go into the real world or what I looked at as the real world at the time, and (Ms. Abbott) just took me under her wing,” she recalled. “She was an incredible teacher who put her all into it, ensuring that her students felt special and were ready for the world.”
Ralph, also known for her role as Dee, a high school vice principal, on the 90s sitcom "Moesha," says there are similarities between Barbara and Dee, who are both passionate about schooling. "Both of them love their jobs and believed in the possibilities of the students that were in their care," she said. "I think for most teachers who are in challenged school situations, that is what we find: They love their job.”