Character Building  by Booker T. Washington

Chapter 29 On Mother & Father

I think there is no more important or more critical time in a person's life than when he or she leaves home for the first time, to enter school, or to go to work, or to go into business. I think that as a general thing you can judge pretty accurately what a person is going to amount to in life by the way he or she acts during the first year or two after leaving home.

You will find, usually, that if a young man is able during this time to stand up against temptation, is able to practice the lessons that his father and mother have taught him, and instead of falling by the wayside gains help and inspiration as he goes along from these lessons, he is almost sure to prove himself a valuable citizen, one who not only will be a help to his parents in their old age, but a help to the community in which he lives.

There is no better way to test an act than to ask yourself the question: "What would my father or my mother think of this? Would they approve, or should I be ashamed to let them know that I have done this thing?" If you will ask yourselves these questions day by day, I think you will find that you will get a great deal of assistance from them in the shaping of your lives while you are here at school.

I want you to put that question to yourselves with regard to deportment, because that is a thing on which we must lay emphasis. We can fill your heads with knowledge, and we can train your hands, to work with skill, but unless all this training of head and hand is based upon high, upright character, upon a true heart, it will amount to nothing. You will be no better off than the most ignorant.

Now, one of the ways in which young people are likely to go astray, especially when they first go away from home to school, is in yielding to a temptation to spend their time with persons who have mean and low dispositions; persons whom you would be ashamed to have your parents know that you kept company with. Avoid that. Be sure that the young men and women with whom you associate are persons who are able to raise you up, persons who will help to make you stronger in every way.

I do not need to tell you, I am sure, of the consequences of association with persons who will have a bad influence upon you, or the results of a disregard of admonitions for good. A student who persistently keeps bad company, who breaks rules, who is constantly disobedient, who is repeatedly behind at roll call, who time after time has to be called up by the officer of the day, or watched in the dining room or on the parade ground, is the student who in a few years is going to bring sorrow to the hearts of his parents. There is no getting away from that.

Only today the mother of one of the students came here with a message from another mother whose son had been sent here. She told me how this anxious mother had told her to impress upon her son the necessity of obeying every rule here and how she wanted him to put in every moment in hard study and honest work. She wanted this woman to impress upon the boy how hard his mother was struggling every day so that she could keep him here, and at the same time pro-vide for the younger children of the family at home. Now, when this message was delivered, where was that boy? Was he doing as his mother was so earnestly praying him to do? No. He had already disgraced himself, and had been sent away from the institution. How much sorrow will he bring to his poor mother's heart when she knows! No wonder he was trying to conceal his misconduct and disgrace from her.

Let me entreat you, then, if you are inclined to fritter away the best hours of your lives, think how the news of your misconduct will act upon the hearts of your parents, those fathers and mothers whose every thought is of you.

I have spoken of these as some of the things that we do not want to have you do at school. What are some of the things that we do want you to learn to do? We want to have you learn to see and appreciate the practical value of the religion of Christ. We hope to help you to see that religion, that Christianity, is not something that is far off, something in the air, that it is not something to be enjoyed only after the breath has left the body. We want to have you see that the religion of Christ is a real and helpful thing; that it is something which you can take with you into your class-rooms, into your shops, on to the farm, into your very sleeping rooms, and that you do not have to wait until to-morrow before you can find out about the power and helpfulness of Christ's religion.

We want to have you feel that this religion is a part of your lives, and that it is meant to be a help to you from day to day. We hope to have you feel that the religious services that we have you attend here are not burdens, but that it is a privilege, greatly to be desired, to come to these, meetings, and into the prayer meetings of the various societies on the grounds, and there commune, not in a far-off, imaginary way, but in an humble but intimate way, with the spirit of Jesus. We want you to feel that religion is something to make you happier, brighter and more hopeful, not something to make you go about with long, solemn faces. We want you to learn, if you do not already know, that in order to be Christ like one does not have to be unnatural.

Then we want to have you to learn to govern your actions, not alone for the sake of the result which they will have upon yourself and those who are near and dear to you, but for the sake of your influence upon all with whom you will come in contact. Your life here will be largely wasted. I am tempted to say wholly wasted-if you fail to learn that higher, broader, and far more important lesson of your relations to your fellow-students and to all the persons by whom you are going to be daily surrounded.

Your life will be wasted if you go away from here and have not learned that the greatest lesson of all is the lesson of brotherly love, of usefulness and of charity. I want to see young men who are here realizing this spirit to such an extent that they will rise in chapel and give their seats to students who are strangers at the school. I want to have you get to the point where you will go to the matron in the dining room and ask her permission to have some new student who has not had a chance to get acquainted take his meals at a seat beside you.

Of the many noble traits exhibited by the late General Armstrong, none made a deeper impression upon me than his supreme unselfishness. I do not believe that I ever saw in all my association with General Armstrong anything in his life or actions which indicated in the slightest degree that he was selfish. He was interested not only in the black South, but in the white South, not only in his own school, but in all schools. Anything which he could do or say to benefit another institution seemed to give him as much pleasure as if he were speaking or acting directly for the benefit of Hampton Institute.

I had a pleasant experience of this spirit of a desire to be helpful to others a little while ago, when I was visiting a certain theological seminary in Pennsylvania. I think I was never in such an atmosphere as during the two days I spent in that institution. I was surrounded by a crowd of young men whose sole object seemed to be to make me comfortable and happy.

Most of these young men were far advanced in the study of theology and the sciences, and yet they were not above serving me, even to the extent of offering to black my boots. When I came' away several wished to carry my luggage to the station. This is the kind of thoughtfulness we want to have in every corner of this institution. Get hold of the spirit of wanting to help somebody else. Seek every opportunity possible to make somebody happy and comfort-able. Do all this, and you will find that the years will not be many before we will have one of the best institutions on the face of the globe, and that you, in helping to make it such, have been doing things that, when you ask yourselves: "What would father and mother say about my doing this?" will enable you to answer the question with pride and satisfaction.