Lessons From My Grandfather

Terrell Morton, Guest Writer

Terrell Morton, Guest Writer

“46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” ~ (Luke 2:41-50, NIV)

The scripture referenced above describes a critical period in the life of Jesus Christ, when at the age of 12 he decided to go and learn about his purpose from the teachers in his “father’s house.” This story resonates with me personally because during the first 12 years of my life I grew up where my grandfather was the head of household and my father figure. He was also the pastor of my church, ironically. Unlike Jesus who in this story is shown to be intuitively in tune with what the teachers were sharing with him, during those 12 years of living in my (grand) father’s house, I was not. Many of us who have had the opportunity to spend time with our grandparents during our childhood probably were not in tune with what they were trying to teach us. It wasn’t until years down the road after I had returned to my (grand) father’s house when I began to understand the significance and the importance of those lessons from my grandfather so long ago.

Going through the process of developing my own critical family history forced me to reflect on the information shared with me over the years. I was also able to locate a binder that was created by a distant cousin of mine that contained detailed information about my family’s lineage, tracing our history back to the plantation that my family bore from in Auburn, NC. Having that physical document alongside of the stories that were shared with me over the years served as great resources.

Being Intuitively In Tune With The Teachers From Your Father’s House

While I am aware that not all families may be aware of or have such a book that contains their family history, I would implore others to talk with older family members to see if there has been some type of document drafted. Documents that contain some type of lineage, photographs, or information about the history of your family serve as powerful artifacts. These types of things could be something similar to the binder that I was able to locate or something else such as a family bible. I would also encourage others to document in some fashion those oral traditions and stories that the family elders (teachers) share. Had I been more like Jesus, during those initial 12 years, I would not have been struggling to recall the information that my grandfather shared about his life. Events such as how his parents were able to make ends meet for him and his three brothers during the Great Depression without them knowing how poor the family was, or stories of how he and his brothers decided to throw rocks at a school bus of white kids spitting on them as they walked several miles outside the neighborhood to the “Negro” school.

Being actively engaged in those conversations could have helped me understand what those experiences were like, how they affected him, what was going through his mind at the time, and what was his take on it now that he was able to self-reflect. Of course questions like these did not come into fruition until after I was no longer able to ask them, and now I either have to forever wonder what was going on mentally or draw my own conclusions based on other clues, conversations, and documents shared and obtained. Hindsight truly is 20:20, and to anyone who still has that opportunity to engage with their teachers and document those stories, I strongly suggest that you do so before it is too late.

Understanding The Importance Of Why

Growing up, my grandfather stressed going to church and going to school so that I could receive a great foundation. Again, as a little boy I wasn’t concerned with these things. Outside of all of the school work, my cousin, sisters, and I were raised reading poems, short stories, and books by African-American writers and about African-American people. We were taught bible stories, hymns, and scriptures. Our grandparents took the time to share with us stories of their past and experience as well as the past, experience and plight of African-American people. It never dawned on my why they placed emphasis on these additional things until after I was able to draw inferences from their stories.

At the age of 15, my grandfather accepted his call to the ministry and began preaching at his home church. He attended the closest Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Shaw University, to pursue a degree in History and later Divinity. “Preaching” his way through school, he obtained a bachelors degree in history and later a second bachelors degree (now a masters degree) in Divinity. Graduating in the 40’s from college was something unique for African-Americans, and obtaining what is equivalent to a master’s degree was even more unusual. Given segregation ruling the south, a majority of Black families could not afford obtaining secondary education, yet alone a graduate degree. Being able to pursue both, and working tirelessly to do so, showed how much he valued a strong education and how passionate he was about his work. Him defying the odds and not taking a more common approach to provide for his desires, such as enlisting the military due to WWII, speaks to his will power and faith. His belief in mastering his craft so that he could be used as an effective instrument to produce change carried over into his philosophy of rearing children, and we were raised to think and believe like him.

Knowing his struggle and sacrifice to obtain his innermost desire helps me understand why. So many others depended on someone else to provide for them, my grandfather depended on the Lord and himself. Having an education is something that no one could take from him, and being raised in times where African-Americans had so little, obtaining something of this nature was extremely precious and valuable. He wanted his children and grandchildren to have that “non-revocable” education. He understood the power of an education, and wished to empower us. In other families, there may be stories similar to this, but involving something different. My family values education, and now I know why. In knowing why, I am better equipped to handle the adversity that seeking a higher education produces. Can others say the same about what their family holds dear?

The Power of Resilience, Perseverance, and Determination

My grandfather’s story not only provides me with a better understanding of why, but it also taught me the power of being resilient, persevering against the odds and staying determined to succeed. In the late 50’s my grandfather attended Boston University to obtain a doctorate in pastoral counseling because it was one of the only schools at the time that accepted “Negro ministers.” Even there he faced discrimination and racism when his professor stated, “You’re not a real man unless you have two or three Negro women on the side” while staring directly at him. My grandfather explained to me how enraged he was and how he desired to tell the professor exactly what he felt, but refrained from doing so because he knew that was the exact behavior that the teacher expected.

I could only imagine the amount of stress and pressure my grandparents faced at this time living apart (my grandmother in Asheville raising two kids and my grandfather in Boston in school) during a time of segregation and racism, on a minister’s and teacher’s salary. The hardships they both endured surpass any that I may have experienced thus far in obtaining my doctoral degree, yet they pushed on. His determination to achieve the highest education possible bewilders me. Despite everything that he had been through, he continued to persevere. He did not allow anyone or anything to deter him from his aspirations, and endured through all challenges. In the end, his resilience to struggle and perseverance proved worthwhile, as he was able to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Conclusion…“Be Inner-Directed, Not Outer-Directed”

I never would have thought of the importance behind the stories shared by my teacher in my (grand) father’s house. With a majority of the information being shared to me at a younger age, and me not being intuitively in-tune like Jesus, I am appreciative of the book on my family history and of my cousin helping me to recall some of the details to the stories. And as I sit here today in my grandfather’s house that I now have to maintain after his passing, I yearn for the opportunity to pick his brain and talk about his life. I guess the old saying that “you don’t recognize what you had until it’s gone” is true; however, as I continue on my own journey and face whatever life has in store for me, I am forever reminded of the struggle my grandparents faced and their ability to defy the odds. I will carry with me forever my grandfather’s reciting of Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” and his added interpretation, “Be inner-directed and not outer-directed.” That short phrase surmises his lived experience while carrying his belief and philosophy about life, a belief and philosophy that I now embody and will pass on to the next generation.

Take the time to deconstruct those lessons that your family teacher has provided you or is currently providing you. Seek to obtain family resources such as physical artifacts or oral stories and have them documented so that they can be passed on. You never know what lessons can stem from their life stories, and when they will be most beneficial.


Terrell Morton, MS, is a second year doctoral student in the Learning Science and Psychological Studies program, in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He previously completed a Masters of Science in Neuroscience (2013) at the University Of Miami, and a Bachelors of Science degree in Chemistry at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (2011). Terrell’s research interest focuses on the perception of education and its value by African-American students, and what role it plays in their academic achievement and matriculation. Thus far, his work involves understanding social and cultural influences on academic and social identity development for high school and college African-American students.

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