Not too long ago, there was a girl at the Cincinnati Ballet who loved to dance. She loved other things, too, like art and playing school with her little sister—she was always the teacher—but she dreamed most at that time of being a professional ballerina. And things were going well in that respect. She was good at this thing she loved.
From the audience’s perspective, one could only judge her by her movements, the way the music seemed to lift her off her feet and float her body along the stage. What they could not see was that her shoes were quickly becoming worn, and soon she would need new ones. Beneath the grace and the beauty was a story young Augusta Enns Ridley ’19 was not telling anyone.
As far as she knew, people just didn’t talk about their struggles. Her gleeful dancing hid the fact that the Great Recession of 2008 had hit the family hard. Her father, an architect, had lost his job. Her mother, a musician, joined the Cincinnati Ballet as a pianist to help with the expenses that came with dancing.
“Dance is a really expensive hobby,” Ridley explained. “You’re buying $100 shoes every week, so my mom played her little fingers off at the piano all week so I could attend there and pay for my shoes.”
Her mother, Della, did the same for her other daughter’s vocal lessons. In addition, she worked as a music teacher.
The recession had not only brought hard financial times for the Enns family, for Augusta, it came also with a bit of a reality check. She had picked up work, herself, at the Cincinnati Zoo, painting faces to save money for college. And as she did, she thought of her future. A professional dancer’s career is typically very short, and an artist’s life, she was learning from her parents as they struggled to make money through their own passions, was perhaps not the most stable one.
But teaching, as her mother had demonstrated, seemed recession-proof. The world would always need teachers. When it came time for college, maybe going into education would be a solid Plan B.
The town of Berea, at least, wasn’t foreign to Ridley. The artistically minded family had always made it a point to stop by the Artisan Center out by the interstate for bathroom breaks on the way to South Carolina to visit relatives. Visiting the college in town was perhaps a natural choice when considering her options. When she finally did appear on campus for her admissions interview, Ridley was shown a video of what Berea had to offer.
“I came away from that video thinking it looks like people will care about me here,” she said. “I won’t slip through the cracks. [At a big state school], there’s no free laptop. There’s no clothing fund for your interviews.”
Ridley declared a double major in elementary education and studio art, with a minor in dance. At first, she was disappointed Berea only offered beginning ballet, but she quickly discovered there were other kinds of dance available. She joined the Middle Eastern Dance Club and the Modern Dance Club. She studied hip hop and Latin dance.
“I thought ballet was the only thing that existed,” she said, “and then I came to Berea, and I was like, ‘Wow, you can learn about other cultures through dance.’”
Ridley decided early on in her Berea College career that she would soak up everything the school had to offer. She thirsted for knowledge and soon found that Plan B was not merely a concession to the reality of economics. She also loved spending time with kids.
“From a logical standpoint,” she said, “I needed to ensure that I could support myself one day as an adult, but then I realized, oh, this is my passion, too.”
She found more passion in her labor assignments, which allowed her to integrate campus jobs with her studies. When the library, in the process of digitizing, threw their old magazines into the recycling bin, Ridley, working for facilities management, collected them and turned them into art projects and gifts.
“I really used the stuff I found in the garbage,” she said. “When you’re sorting through it 10 hours a week, you get to find real treasures.”
Among those treasures were National Geographic magazines from the 1930s, which Ridley used to create an interactive art installation that allowed people to place their thumbprints on a map of the world marking locations significant to them.
In her second year, Ridley joined the Craft Education and Outreach Program, where she learned metal working and jewelry making. In addition, she taught children to make brooms in craft workshops.
“My labor position married that love of art and education into one job,” she said.
Through her classes, her extracurriculars and her labor assignments, Ridley was able to put Plan A and Plan B together.
“When I was a little girl,” she related, “I told my mom I wanted to be eight things when I grew up. And she said, ‘You can,’ and so I did. I took as many classes as I could, and I majored in as many things as I could. I explored all my passions, and the labor program allowed me to weave those passions together.”
This will only be Ridley’s fourth year teaching, but already her students have made the news three times. Under her guidance, eighth graders at Jack Jouett Middle School in Charlottesville, Va., pitched new ideas about affordable housing to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Their big idea: using existing but unused structures to house the homeless. The county adopted their plan and transformed a shuttered hotel into transitional housing.
“You would think, oh, an eighth grader can’t affect their community through affordable housing,” Ridley said. “No, they totally can. They are very, very creative and think of things that as adults we might think are impossible. But they’re not as jaded as we are.”
In other news, her students created a website for people in the Charlottesville area to share their social-justice stories. Both newsworthy initiatives were the result of Ridley’s project-based learning technique. A third story detailed a project on nature education to improve student mental health.
Following her mother’s death in July 2021, Ridley and her husband Mackenzie Ridley ’17 moved to rural Tennessee to be closer to family. This year may be the first that she has taught her classes all in person due to the pandemic. She says that while the pandemic made her more flexible and introduced her to new technologies, it’s been harder to get to know the children. In her fledgling career, she has taught multiple topics in fourth through eighth grades. This year, she is teaching sixth grade math and science.
Many of the students at her new school are low-income. Ridley says her personal experience and her time at Berea have helped her relate to them.
“Before I came to Berea,” she shared, “I would hide the fact that I was struggling financially or that my family was struggling financially. I would never discuss any personal issues that were happening to me. When I got to Berea, people were so open about that, and I realized, dang, everybody’s gone through stuff. People have had some really hard times. Nowhere had I experienced a culture where it was okay to share that.”
She says that openness has impacted her teaching philosophy and the way she maintains relationships.
“When I come through the door in the morning,” she continued, “I remind myself that every kid has a story like that. Every kid is experiencing some level of struggle. Berea taught me it’s okay to talk about my struggle to these kids. They don’t need to be ashamed of what they have going on at home. It’s okay to live in a family that’s not perfect. You’re still valuable, and you can still achieve greatness.”