A few years later I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen, in her vacant chair, having coffee with her husband. I remember it was about nine in the morning and he was telling me how he needed some help in the house. “I had me an old n***** woman once …” he began, and I set my coffee cup hard on the table. He dipped his head, laughed, and tapped me on the arm. “Oh kid, lighten up,” he said, “I don’t mean nothin’.” A few minutes later he offered me a Little Debbie snack cake and told a joke. “There was this n***** …” the joke began. I said, “Knock it off, or I’m leaving.” He kept on. I stood up, washed out my coffee cup, and left my mother’s house for the last time.
By now we’ve all seen the 9 second video. University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers on a bus singing their song. The first time I saw the video I thought about how joyful and strong they sound in the singing, it’s like they’re belting out the school fight song. As a parent, I’m now thinking about the parents of this evicted house of young men and the mad scramble they are probably in today to take care of their kids, to find their boys a place to live. I wonder about the conversations they are having at home. I wonder how many were shocked by the song and who thought it was no big deal. I wonder who the parents are most angry with: their boys’ behavior or the university president who booted them.
Last week I had a question about the first parent-teacher conference I attended. I had been a mom for about a month. I remember that I drove to the school on a Tuesday evening to meet my new son’s 5th grade teacher. I remember sitting outside the classroom in a line of aluminum chairs, feeling the “who is that woman?” stares from the other moms. I remember meeting Mr. Moynihan and not liking him and wondering if he liked me. I thought I remembered there being no parents of color, but was that right? I had to ask my now-28 year old son to fill in the blanks and, as he told me story after story, I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about his life at that school.
This morning I’m alone with my cup of coffee. I’m thinking about the parents of those University of Oklahoma boys: who’s telling a bad joke and asking what’s the big deal, and who’s shocked to know what was going on at their son’s school. This morning I’m missing my mother and thinking about her elderly husband, my stepfather and his jokes, the empty decade between us, and the promise I did not keep.