"Who wants to stop for an Icee?" I ask.
It's a foolish question posed to the three, hot, tired ten-year-old boys who are sitting in the backseat of my car. For a good three minutes, I bask in the gleeful shouts of appreciation. For less than four bucks I am transformed into Super Mom—at least until the last draughts of coke and cherry flavoring are slurped up through the red, patented stroons. In my new life I am: Benevolent Mom, Laugher at Jokes Otherwise Not Funny to Anyone Over the Age of Ten and Buyer of Treats for the Treatless. I'm not trying to replace guilt with 16 ounces of carbonated, high fructose corn syrup. (Really, I'm not!) I am simply being Present for my son who is quickly hurdling beyond ten-year-old-dom into pre-pubesence. One glass-half-full aspect of divorce is that I now when I'm with Jack, I am more keenly aware of how precious my time with him is. Often those moments are filled with joy. Other times, well, truly paying attention to the situation can be down-right difficult. Today is a mixture of both.
"I have a riddle!" he cries. "A black millionaire, a Mexican doctor and a unicorn are all trapped in a burning building, who would survive?"
Distracted by the oncoming traffic, I'm still processing the joke when Dane shouts his answer.
"No one! 'Cause they don't exist in real life! They're ALL imaginary!"
The boys—including my beloved son, Jack—shriek and laugh loudly. Now in the Shell station parking lot, it's all I can do to stop the car.
"WHAT did you just say?!"
The boys stop laughing. Jack looks down. I'm sure he wishes he could sink through the floorboard and disappear. Dane looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
"Do you really think that?" I ask. "Do you really think that black people can't be wealthy and successful and Hispanic people are uneducated? Really?!"
Marcus shakes his head no.
"Why would you tell that joke then?"
"I dunno," Marcus shrugs.
Dane, who has had his hand over his mouth since I stopped the car, begins to giggle.
"Stop laughing, Dane," I say. "This isn't funny. Don't you boys realize how evil prejudice is? It may seem like a harmless joke, but that joke keeps alive stereotypes that are mean and hurtful. You boys have friends and teachers and coaches who are African American and Hispanic! Why would you tell a joke like that? Why!?"
Dane looks down.
I take a deep breath. Am I overreacting? Under-reacting? Teaching a lesson? Making matters worse? All that's certain is the overwhelming feeling of disgust and frustration I feel over this insensitive racist joke.
"Listen boys, I'm not mad at you, but I can't tolerate bigotry. You know what that means, right?"
The boys nod, but I suspect they would nod at anything I said right now.
"When I was your age, schools had just been integrated. Before then black children couldn't go to school with white children. Black people weren't even allowed to vote! A lot of people fought and died for equal rights. People were killed because they looked different! That was in my lifetime. I don't want to go back to that time, do you?"
Jack stares at me. Sorry, son, I think. I can't be Benevolent Mom today.
"Here in Birmingham, little children were killed by people who hated Blacks just because of the color of their skin," I continue."You may think I'm getting too upset over this, but when I hear you tell a racist joke like that, it scares me. We can't forget what happened."
The boys are really listening now.
"We studied Civil Rights in school," says Dane. "I wrote a report about Martin Luther King."
"That's wonderful, Dane," I say. "So you see how a joke like that is wrong?"
"Yes, Mam," Dane answers and Jack and Marcus nod.
"Okay," I say. "Okay."
"Mom," says Jack quietly. "I'm thirsty, can we still get an Icee?"
By the time I return Marcus and Dane to their respective homes the boys are contrite. But there was something wholly unsettling about a ten-year old telling a racist joke. Marcus didn't make it up, of course. He heard it from an older sibling, or a parent or grandparent. Jack is quietly slurping his cherry-Coke Icee in the backseat.
"What did you think of that joke Marcus told?" I ask.
"It was dumb," Jack says.
"Did I embarrass you by getting so upset?"
"Well, a little. I mean, Mom, you kinda went off!"
"Did I? Yeah, I did, didn't I? Do you understand why that joke was so bad?"
"It was racist." Jack pauses. "Besides it didn't make sense. I mean, our principal is black and what about President Obama? He's black and rich. The joke doesn't even make sense."
"I don't ever want you saying things like that, okay?"
"And I don't want you hanging out with kids who say things like that, okay?"
"Okay, Mom," says Jack. He pauses and then adds, "Can we stop talking about this now?"
"Sure," I say.
I take a long sip of my cherry Icee and flinch at the ensuing brain-freeze. So much for Fun Mom. I'm handing in my crown.
* Names have been changed.