Viola Davis addressed graduating seniors Thursday at the high school in the struggling Rhode Island city where she grew up, urging them to treasure "hard times and joyous moments" and telling them that the "privilege of a lifetime is being who you are."
The Oscar-nominated actress from the film "The Help" spoke to Central Falls High School's class of 2012, student actors and members of student government and other alumni nearly 30 years after receiving her own diploma there. She was also inducted into the school's Alumni Hall of Fame.
A member of the class of 1983, Davis has continued to support the 1.3-square-mile city of 19,000 just north of Providence.
Central Falls has found itself the subject of national headlines over its floundering finances _ a state receiver filed for bankruptcy on its behalf last year _ and for the mass firing in 2010 of all the high school's teachers. They were later rehired.
"Central Falls makes up in heart what it lacks in size," Davis told students on a stage where she once acted. "Make your mark _ whatever it is _ you have it in you."
Davis was a favorite for best actress in this year's Academy Awards for her performance as a black maid in "The Help," but she lost out to Meryl Streep, who won for "The Iron Lady."
Streep later made $10,000 donations in Davis' name to a charter school Davis has supported and to the Upward Bound scholarship fund that the actress established with her sister.
Davis donated $1,000 each last year to the Central Falls library _ which had temporarily closed because of finances _ and the charter. In accepting a Screen Actors Guild award in January she told students there to "dream big and dream fierce."
The high school principal, Joshua Laplante, called Davis a treasured graduate and said she has overcome adversity but remembers where she came from with a "genuine sense of pride."
Davis was born on her grandmother's farm in South Carolina in 1965, the second youngest of six children of a factory worker and homemaker mother and a horse trainer father. The family moved to Central Falls when she was a few months old.
Davis recounted a time in third grade when a classmate kept calling her "the N-word," prompting her to try to best him in some way. He was known as the fastest boy in Central Falls, so she challenged him to a race.
She worried as recess approached _ her shoes were a size and a half too small and her socks had holes _ and she wondered how she'd be able to run fast.
"I did what any self-respecting girl would have done: I took my shoes off," she said.
The race was a tie. But she said Thursday she was telling the story as a kind of lesson to students.
"You gotta be in the race, no matter what," she said. "Win or lose.
"I know the road ahead of you," she added. "I know all the obstacles that are placed in your path, living in Central Falls. That's nothing compared to what you're going to face in life."
Davis graduated in 1988 from Rhode Island College, where she studied theater.
"It's really an honor to have her here," said Julissa Flores, a 15-year-old member of the high school's student government. "She's a role model to us, to go further and actually succeed in life."