the lessons I learned
A Tribute to Grady Lee Randolph
While reading Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom years ago, I immediately thought of Mr. Randolph. He was my Morrie Schwartz—the most memorable teacher I ever had.
Grady Randolph frequently spoke about his rural, humble beginnings in Possum Trot, Alabama. Because of his intense love of learning, he read every book in the local library and started a journal in his early teens that he continued his entire life. This spirit led him to the University of Chicago, where he earned a law degree. He married, joined the Atlanta Bar in 1954, and practiced law in Atlanta with his wife. But he also taught history at Henry Grady High School.
Everything he did reflected his calling to teach and learn as he questioned, challenged and dug deeper into every issue, and he infused his students with that same spirit. One of his first handouts entitled “Why Study History” said “Those who do not learn from history’s mistakes are destined to repeat them.” He asked his students, “What have you ever done that makes the world any better off than if you had been born a slave.” In other words, “what are you doing with your life and gifts and talents?” That kind of question makes even a tenth grader stop and examine the incredible life and freedoms we take for granted, especially when it appeared on an exam. At fifteen the answer didn’t come easily, and I have spent a lifetime trying to find it.
He hated television—said it was “the opiate of the people,” filling the viewer’s brain with mindless pap and useless diversions that kept them from facing their own lives. “Most people don’t just watch the worthwhile things, but choose the least objectionable programs as they stare at the idiot box night after night as if they were in a trance,” he’d say. He compared it to the way ancient Romans mindlessly watched at the Coliseum as people were pitted against lions and subjected to other brutal methods of torture, which kept onlookers from thinking and dealing with their miserable lives. As a result of his commentary, I have always been an anti-television person—feeling like it sucks me in, takes over my mind and diverts my attention from significant and worthwhile issues.
He said that people frequently comment about how many auto accidents there are, but he was surprised there weren’t more accidents when he watched how crazy people drove. He often said “You’ve heard that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”—and then he added with a smile, “but you can feed him salt.” He constantly challenged us to be in charge of our lives and our decisions and not just be led by a whim of the moment.
Nobody talked or misbehaved in his class. He was not a violent person, but his glance over the top of his glasses stopped even the largest football player dead in his tracks. He never raised his voice, and spoke slowly and softly—every word carefully chosen for its meaning and impact. People loved him or hated him, admired him or feared him.
He was the faculty advisor for the debate club and the foreign exchange student program. He advocated travel as the only way to see for yourself what things were really like in other parts of the world. With his encouragement I applied for and was selected to be an exchange student, but my parents would not sign the release. They were afraid for my safety and well-being in another country, so far from home. So even though I did not get to participate in that program, a life-long interest and love of foreign travel was planted within me and still thrives.
Not only was he my world history teacher, as a senior I took his current world affairs class, which was an elective that was selected only by serious students or masochists. We used the “Wall Street Journal” and “Christian Science Monitor” for our textbooks, supplemented by pamphlets from the Council on Foreign Relations. Everyone had to bring in an article from a newspaper every day, along with a written page explaining why we had chosen the article, what it said and how it was connected to history. There were no excuses for failure to bring in the article—just a zero for the day. His tests were complex essay questions and the answers had to contain multiple points that validated every response and had to be presented in a logical manner. I learned more about thinking and writing in a clear and logical way from Mr. Randolph than I ever did in an English class.
At one point Mr. Randolph was investigated by the Atlanta School Board. Complaints of his teaching style and hints that he was a Communist led to the investigation. Several of his students went to a school board meeting downtown to defend our beloved teacher and his amazing ability to demand and receive quality results from his students. Some of us got to deliver a prepared speech and were questioned by the board. We explained how he carefully taught the difference between communism with a little ‘c’ and a big ‘C.’ The charges were dropped and he continued to teach for years, without changing his methods.
Through the years, I have thought about the lessons I learned from him and the effect his teaching had on my life. In recent years, I wanted to talk with him and thank him for his positive influence, and vowed that I would visit him when I got a chance. In 2005 when I discovered that he was still alive, although not in good health due to a stroke, I knew I needed to call him.
And then one day I read in the paper that he had died, and was immediately filled with so many regrets because I had not contacted him. His obituary said that his wife had donated all his journals and writings to the Atlanta Historical Society because they were such an accurate account of the past seventy years. I wrote a note to her, but that was a lame substitute and not enough. Once again I was reminded of the urgency of telling the important people in my life how much I appreciated their lives and gifts to me—and most importantly, not waiting until it is too late. Mr. Randolph’s challenge rang in my ears, “Those who do not learn from history’s mistakes are destined to repeat them.”
So, Mr. Randolph, you were not only the best teacher I ever had, but your words and wisdom have been my life-long mentors—challenging me to use my brain, question everything, and become the best and most authentic person I could be. I am forever grateful to you.
Possum Trot, Alabama must be mighty proud.