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This is a column about my parents, two lovely people from Houston, Texas whom I thought I knew well. We have, after all, had a 22-year relationship involving corporal punishment and pooping lessons. They were my mentors, and now that I'm in college, they have in a very unexpected way become my friends. But one letter to the editor about my last column (Join the Harvard Corps, Feb. 29) has made me think about our relationship all over again.
This letter, never printed, was written with the circumspection and sensitivity of a sexual orientation counselor at Bob Jones University. The author compared herself to me, saying: "for some of us it was harder to get in here [Harvard] than having Daddy make a phone call." Obviously, there's a lesson in here about the limits of critical discourse (moral: Harvard students are sharp as tacks and usually twice as tacky). But I was more shocked to hear about my dad than anything else.
Now, I already knew my father was important. He had been president of the Memorial Meadows civic club, commanding a legion of wild-eyed lawn care fanatics and armed elderly. But I never heard of him doing something like this. I wouldn't be surprised if dad puts out cigars on Neil L. Rudenstine's arm or has his carpets shampooed by state representatives. Most of all, I was hurt that the writer of this letter knew that my father was a Captain of Industry before I did.
My relationship with my parents has changed drastically during college, so I thought they would have opened up to me about this. We're friends now, and friends tell friends when they're incredibly wealthy and powerful. "Son," they should have said, "The man in the tuxedo isn't nutty Uncle Bill as we always told you. He's the butler."
Even if they did keep this from me, becoming friends with my parents has been one of the best parts about college. It's also been the weirdest experience of my life at Harvard. Well, second to sophomore year.
You know how it is: Once upon a time, your parents told you how, when and why to do everything. Eat this, do that, get dressed and go to school. Why, they even told you how many friends you could have at one time--oh, sorry, that was actually Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68. (In case you missed it: the answer is eight, and don't ask again.)
But in middle and high school, your parents' role changed, from Omnipotent Provider to Bewildered Policeman. They enforced rules when they could, but most of the time they wondered what they were missing. "Was Millard Fillmore Day a school holiday before?", they wonder. "Do all English classes assign a 'close reading' of Busty, Lusty Ladies?"
In college, your parents are thousands of miles away. They wouldn't know if spent your nights eating grape leaves and playing the harmonica on the roof of Dunster House (still, I'd advise against this). Now, you think to yourself, "My parents don't even know enough about my life to force me to lie about it. Does this mean that now we should be friends?" Yes, but it's a strange adjustment. These new "friends" likely have dozens of pictures of you naked. Also, they were around for the week when you decided your new name was "Corey."
As your parents' friend, you'll get to hear gossip about other parents (the short version: Tim's dad is also Bryan's dad, and Mr. Werner wears a bra). They'll also tell you the hopes and dreams they had in college (the short version: hemp store). You'll realize that your worries will never go away, even after you begin worrying for a child. And if you think that's scary, don't even mention sex to your new "friends." You might get to hear how you were conceived, and you'll never look at seven strawberry daiquiris and that old couch in the basement the same way again.
But becoming friends with your parents will also often give you a new sense of being alone in the world. You will have lost parental protection--a benevolent presence between the stupid things you do and a world that loves to ridicule them. Fall down in the snow? Get a D on a midterm? Have a stranger say you're a rich, arrogant bastard in a letter they mean for the entire campus to read? First and foremost, these concerns are yours to deal with. Friends new or old can only help.
But, accepting the very scary proposition that you or I may be parents in a few years, maybe we need this. I'll definitely need a long time facing life's unbuffered calamities before I can convince a toddler that I'm an Omnipotent Provider.
Also, maybe it's only right to really appreciate whomever played the role of parent in your life now, while hopefully they're still around to thank.
One last note. My parents would like you to know that my remark about seven daiquiris and a couch in the basement was in no way drawn from my family history. In fact, they would like you to know we don't even use the basement. Not while we're renting it out to Sam the Chauffering School Student (we're letting him practice on us for free!) and Cousin Katie Cooks-Every-Day.
David A. Fahrenthold '00 is a history concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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