When Anne Doris walked down Harlem sidewalks with her mother, “we couldn’t walk anywhere with Mom when she wasn’t recognized.” In a neighborhood famous for authors, entertainers, and activists, it may surprise some to know what Winifred Doris did to earn such local renown: she taught, mostly second grade, at St. Charles Borromeo School, between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s.
“She made every individual student feel special,” former student Rhonda Gadson explains. Rhonda’s close friend Michele Davila elaborates: “She was the first woman besides my beautiful mother who stood tall and elegant. She exuded beauty and grace, and her disposition and her gentleness all complemented the way she looked. She exemplified beauty, inside and out.”
Winifred passed away this spring. But, as Anne reflects, in one way “you are alive as long as someone has a memory of you. And there are going to be memories of her for a long time.”
The memories people have of Mrs. Doris as a teacher and neighborhood figure speak volumes about an extraordinary woman, about the vitality of a school she came to at a pivotal time, and about the cumulative effect a life can have, particularly when it is full of days lived with purpose, a commitment to excellence, and kindness.
Mrs. Doris came to Harlem in 1968, moving with her husband and seven children from British Guyana when some of her children were starting college. A formidable student herself—she finished high school at 14—she already had years of teaching experience when she arrived at St. Charles. She had taught both in the city of Georgetown—at Sacred Heart School alongside U.S.-trained Sisters of Mercy—and on the west coast of Guyana, where her students included the children of laborers on sugar plantations.
“Being a great teacher and a great professional was important to her,” Anne explained. And when she retired, she came right back to St. Charles to volunteer for years. Even then, current St. Charles teacher Janis Selby says, she stood out for “having compassion for everyone—students, teachers, parents—and being as professional as if she were still getting paid.”
That caring is something Wilfred Robinson knows well. “I had a lot of behavioral issues growing up. My mother worked in a hotel in housekeeping, and I spent a lot of time by myself. Mrs. Doris was one of the first ones who pulled me aside, talked to my mother, and convinced my mother and me to go to counseling at the Kennedy Center, a community center in Harlem. And that really helped me.” By caring for each child; thoroughly preparing lessons and routines; and deploying what Wilfred calls a “ninja” style of calm, surgical precision at redirecting student behavior—she created an oasis in the classroom. “I never saw anybody want to misbehave in her room,” Wilfred explains.
Teaching was more than Mrs. Doris’s profession; “it was a big part of who she was,” Anne shares. Her house was always full of her children’s friends when they were teens, and she worked to make sure they had a good time—which conveniently allowed her always to know who her children’s friends were and what they were up to.
And the streets of Harlem became a source of lessons each day when she and her grandson Paul walked to St. Charles together, when Paul was a student there. He recalls one day when they passed the scene of an accident where a child had been hit by a car. “She stopped and said a prayer, and it reminded me how fragile life is, and how important it is to treasure each day. She taught me to get as much as you can out of each day, and always be kind to your neighbor.” A few lessons were more direct: Mrs. Doris always seemed to know if her grandson had gotten in trouble at the end of the day, which could make for some long walks home for Paul.
We truly believe that every Partnership school is more than classrooms; it is a community. Extraordinarily, some of Mrs. Doris’s students remain a tight-knit community—almost fifty years after Mrs. Doris taught them. The “St. Charles All Stars,” as Michele, Rhonda, Paul, Wilfred and over twenty others call themselves, reconnected years after elementary school—and their bond remains strong. They text daily; go on vacation with each other; are godparents to each other’s children; get together at Carmine’s, pandemic-permitting; and “we argue, we talk about what’s going on in the world and in our lives—we are still like brothers and sisters,” Rhonda explains.
“St. Charles wasn’t only where she worked,” Anne Doris explains about her mother; “it was friendship; it was family.” Those bonds are true for the All Stars as well. The education and community they received from Mrs. Doris and the rest of the teachers at St. Charles are gifts they feel passionately about passing on. So together, they are starting a scholarship fund in Mrs. Doris’s honor.
As Anne says, “she instilled respect in everyone who met her, not from authority or fear, but from genuinely caring.” By continuing to care for future St. Charles students as genuinely as Winifred Doris cared for them, the Doris family and the All Stars are proving how thoroughly they learned the lessons she spent her life teaching—the greatest legacy any teacher could have.
If you would like to contribute to the Winifred Doris Scholars Fund, click here.