Shortly after the Civil War, Dr. Joshua Ensor lost his gold-framed spectacles on Monticello Road. At the time, he was superintendent of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum (their term back then). I would imagine he had difficulty treating ex-Confederate soldiers and destitute citizens without his spectacles. A year later, Dr. Ensor lost his job, thanks to Reconstruction politics.
Around the same time, John D. Frost lost his plantation on Monticello Road. And all his slaves. That’s the misfortune of civil war, some folk lose their fortune. Eventually a Bible college was built in the middle of Frost’s cotton fields.
A century later, I lost my ability to pray on Monticello Road. What a thing for a Bible college student to lose. A fledgling ambassador of the King, preparing to tread the narrow path the rest of my life. Four years’ worth of praying without ceasing along that road ground to a halt—on my way to minister to someone.
No, not someone on Monticello Road. Some place else. On my way down the road to some preordained place. Seeing nothing out the window. Too busy praying for those yet unseen to whom God was sending me. Whose faces were white like mine, in all probability.
Prayer was the rule of the road. Like when we went on choir tours, jammed in a Greyhound bus with suitcases, choir robes, and sheet music. As soon as Mr. Bill, the driver, turned onto Monticello Road, Mr. Bill, the choir director, stood at the front of the bus and urged us to begin praying right then for those who would attend our concerts in coming days. People at churches up north who would listen politely to our exhilarating rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” and our rapid-fire testimonies about where we planned to serve the Lord after graduation. Faithful church members who knew all the words of our anthems.
Prayer was the rule on Wednesday afternoons, driving out Monticello Road in Christian service cars, off to teach Bible classes in public schools. Sweaty, well-churched children who would fidget through our clumsy rendition of flannelgraph David and Goliath while the felt cut-outs kept falling off the board. Target practice for how to carry the gospel message to the uttermost.
It was on one of those trips down the sun-bleached pavement to uttermost that I got distracted and simply could not pray. Maybe it was the orange flame of an open fire by the road that caught my eye. And I saw things that had been flashing in my face all along. A “flash of significance comprising all meanings” in Martin Buber’s words. The least I could have prayed was, “Oh, God,” to God. But encountering life so vivid made me prayer-less on Monticello Road.
What I saw was a drudgery-worn neighborhood. Ramshackle out-buildings hard by the road. Houses just behind, bereft of paint, electricity, modern plumbing. Smokey fires near back doors for cooking everything from fish caught in Crane Creek to root medicines to lye soap. Sand yards swept smooth. Barefoot children playing with makeshift toys. Mothers, some fathers, going about life in the out-of-doors, charting their family’s course in the sand and the fire.
This was Ridgewood, the oldest black community in the county, I later learned. More specifically, the back side of Ridgewood, a step off the main road, where the poorest of poor lived, exposed, vulnerable. The kind of substandard dwellings that could prevent Columbia, South Carolina, from winning the All-American City Award. Blight so offensive they decided to fix it by tearing it down.
In a flash of understanding that day, fire burned up the distance between me and my neighbor. And I saw not “all the children of the world,” but these children in these meager circumstances. Meager, yes, but their very own piece of the world. A vital neighborhood, despite its struggle and poverty. And with the seeing, I realized what sort of narrow path I should tread. I would be an educator. Not to tear down, but to build up. To dialogue, relate. Experience communion as “being opened up and drawn in.”
On Monticello Road I found my calling. Shortly thereafter, I got my prayer back. But it took me decades to learn the pedagogical footwork of I-thou. A non-scripted journey with many missteps. Chaotic at times, the communal act of teaching-learning. Then a spark of some divine kind ignites and what was incoherent and piecemeal becomes whole and freeing and transforming.
I’ve learned that some journeys can be exasperating for teachers and their students. Exasperating enough to make me cry over my “low-performing” fourth graders who don’t score high enough on a standardized test, any standardized test. And I wonder if I should start teaching to the test. Over my second grader who stabs himself with a pencil repeatedly, frustrated by his attempts to mouth indecipherable words in a book, any book. And I wonder how to help him crack the code. And later in my career, over a straight-A college student who wants to drop my teacher education course to major in another field, any field, as long as it pays more.
Often, oh how often, I pray for the will and grace to remain on the path of my choosing.
But I get mired in the soft shoulder of white privilege. Sidetracked by hegemony. Potholes full of stereotypes. Eventually, I come to understand that relational teaching means I need to give up power, give over responsibility. Provide opportunities, not orders. Attempt to “de-center the white patriarchal gaze,” as activist-author bell hooks puts it. That’s when my students and I hold something in common, some new information, amazing insight, astonishing result. When the unknowable becomes knowable, we shout. And our cheering is heard all the way to the heavens … well, at least to the principal’s office. But when the knowable eludes us, we are exhausted and the only sound emitted from my classroom is sighing—the way can be so difficult. Sometimes hallelujahs, sometimes grunts and groans.
It was on Monticello Road that I first found my sight. Since that day, I have experienced eyes-wide-open communion many times over and the afterimages are burned on my brain. To borrow Buber’s words: “I have no teaching, I only point to something…. I open the window and point to what is outside.”
Can Anything Good Come from Ridgewood? is not a rhetorical question but a documentary by Eugene Washington Productions that tells of Ridgewood’s own: Deacon Benjamin J. Mack, a field worker with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma; Estelle Trapp-Young, an SCLC volunteer who also marched at Selma, later the first female Captain in the Columbia Police Department; Rev. Moses H. Holloway and his wife Elizabeth, who, during the 1930s, provided neighbors a grocery, a funeral home, and a business school in their house; Glenice B. Pearson, activist, author, President of The Nonprofit Network. Then there’s Mamie Goodwin Floyd, who, to the end of her days, lived in the house where she was born—a respected school teacher whose name graces a US Post Office just off Monticello Road.