Sheryl Lee Ralph says she can still feel her kindergarten teacher clasping her hand.
"This young woman held my hand," she recalls to TODAY.com. "This is a young white woman in Waterbury, Connecticut. I'm a child of the '60s right, and the idea that your teacher was holding you close, no matter what your color was, just spoke volumes to me."
Ralph's primary school education came at a time when racial tensions were high across the country and the push for desegregation in public schools was still a hotly contested practice. The actor, who at that time was only two years younger than a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges – the first Black student to attend an all-white school in 1960 – says she still feels her teacher's hand intertwined with hers all these years later.
"I can still feel it to this day," she says. "I'm left handed ... and I can still feel it and see where I stood with that teacher."
The Emmy-winning actor, who attended Driggs Elementary School in Waterbury, Connecticut, even remembers her teacher's scent.
"I remember her very well," she says. "Her name was Ms. Spencer. She was very young. She always smelled of a lovely perfume. It was probably something called 'Joy' because I remember my mother wearing that same perfume."
But after kindergarten, Ralph admits things became more difficult for her in school.
"(After that), oh my God, I'm learning lessons. They were not easy. But do I appreciate my teachers, absolutely," she says.
Ralph works to portray the same qualities Ms. Spencer demonstrated to her – kindness, patience and understanding – in her role as Barbara Howard in "Abbott Elementary."
As Teacher Appreciation Week kicks off on Monday, May 8, the actor hopes to lend a helping hand to teachers like Ms. Spencer who work to meet the needs of their students.
Ralph has partnered with the Sonic Foundation to match up to $1.5 million in public donations sent on May 9 through DonorsChoose.org. The website consists of wish lists from public school teachers across the country. Teachers will have 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,” she said, noting how the community and foundations step up when the government does not provide enough resources.
Ralph says kindergarten teachers, in particular, need construction 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 said of the importance of rugs in the classrooms.
The actor's hit series, "Abbott Elementary," has also taken part in giving back. Brunson, the show's creator and executive producer, announced last year that the series’ production team and ABC decided to reallocate money from the show’s marketing budget to buy supplies for teachers.
Ralph, who's also known for her beloved role as Dee, a high school vice principal, on the 90s sitcom "Moesha," says there's definitely some similarities between Barbara and Dee, who are both passionate about academia.
“Both of them love their jobs... (and) both of them believed in the possibilities of the students that were in their care," she says. "I think for most teachers who are in challenged school situations, that is what we find: They love their job.”