Mtu1Last week Mtuseni was chatting with me about City Year and how much he was enjoying it — and I told him how happy that made me. Then he shifted gears and said “But part of me gets nervous.” When I asked why, he said he was worried about diverging from his radio career path by joining the program. I assured him that the door to radio hasn’t been locked shut forever, and that City Year will give him new skills and a broader network for whatever his career might be. I told him to just ride this raft down the river, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience. He agreed that he would, and seemed to feel better.

Later, I thought about his simple statement to me… “I get nervous.” I could never have said that to my father, or to my mother, at his age or at any age. Growing up in my family, any expression of vulnerability was brushed off, squelched, or criticized. Not that my parents were trying to somehow toughen us up, but just that they couldn’t be bothered. So as a short, chubby, brainy, fey, shy boy, I learned to stuff all my fears, hurts, and insecurities inside. It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I was finally able to let all those dark feelings out in a therapist’s office. But for years, they weighed me down like Jacob Marley’s chains.

I’ve watched Mtuseni grow so much. We’ve had many open, heartfelt talks over the years about his fears and worries, stemming from personal self-doubts to feeling “less than” living in a shack settlement. He’s made enormous strides in terms of confidence; I don’t hear much of the nervous boy I first met. Even though he’s brimming with young 20-something bravado these days, I’m glad that he trusts me enough to share his vulnerabilities. Just being able to express them — and have them validated — can make them float away. I wish I’d had that option at his age.

As always, I feel profoundly blessed that I can share Mtuseni’s moments of success — and his moments of weakness. It reminds us both that not only are we men trying to forge a path through life, we’re merely human. And that’s okay.


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The Better Man

February 22, 2015 — 2 Comments

City+Year+Johannesburg+South+AfricaMtuseni went to City Year training camp last week. I was holding my breath for his reaction. It’s one thing to commute to Joburg for a week of orientation; it’s another to be bunking with 100 others for training and team building. Like me, Mtuseni can be social but also needs alone time; he’s a big thinker and brooder.

So on Thursday when I got a “Guess who’s back?” text and asked him how camp went, I half braced myself for a session of griping. Instead I got adjectives like great, challenging, and fantastic. He met lots of people, his group placed second in the obstacle course, and he and other kids shared their “visions for the country.” He said he even “got the facilitator’s attention” by answering questions. I remember when Mtuseni started college, he was so shy and intimidated it took weeks of encouragement for him to speak up in class. My boy’s come a long way.

When I told him how glad I am that he’s soaking it all up like a sponge, Mtuseni said he has plans and wants to make the most of the experience. He’s clearly embracing City Year — an unfamiliar program for him and something I admittedly half-prodded him into doing. I couldn’t be happier, prouder, or more relieved.

Everyone knows that I’m a huge sentimental sap, and a well-crafted commercial or redemption piece on the news can turn me into a blubbering mess. (I need to dial back on the soy!) But I’m also a hardcore cynical Bostonian — I’m not easy to impress. Yet from the beginning I’ve been amazed by Mtuseni’s persistent drive to improve himself and his situation. By his willingness to learn and grow. By a depth that belies his age — and a spark of intangible something that makes me say, “Wow, what a great kid. How lucky I am to have him in my life.”

At times like these I think about Mtuseni’s birth father, Samuel. He walked out on the family about six years ago. He and Mtuseni have no contact. They’ve bumped into each other a few times; they say hello, nothing more. I think about all of Mtuseni’s accomplishments that Samuel is unaware of, how he’s not seeing what an incredible young man his son is becoming. And I just don’t get how as a father you can walk away from that. Yes, there’s the deadbeat dad issue of leaving a wife and three kids with no support — they are clearly being shortchanged, which is reprehensible. But Samuel is also cheating himself of experiencing a truly impressive son — as well as two other young kids who are sweet and respectful and could use the love and encouragement of their dad.

I know little about the circumstances behind Samuel’s departure, other than something to do with another Zulu wife. Maybe the guy feels happier or younger or more manly with a younger woman, but he’s missing out on some pretty great stuff with his now-adult son. And I’d say that Mtuseni, my proud, opinionated, knucklehead, Rubik’s cube of hopes and dreams and emotions — has become more of a man than the father that brought him into this world. It’s Samuel’s loss — but I feel no sympathy for him.

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The Next Step

February 15, 2015 — 1 Comment

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Mtuseni finished his first week of orientation at City Year, and he says every day gets better. (He’s the #ecstatic one in front of the logo above.) I’m so thrilled for him — just being out of the shack and doing things and meeting new people is always great for his spirit. But getting focused training and new knowledge is something he laps up like a thirsty mutt. He’s always been laser-focused on self-improvement. And tomorrow he heads for a four-day training camp in Hekpoort, just outside the Magaliesburg mountains. I have to say, City Year really does things right. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook for updates. You can see the kids are excited and being honored.

So Mtuseni is settled through November, when he graduates from City Year. The next months will still bring challenges with transportation and money, but he’s going to grow so much and come away with great experience, assets, and connections.It’s a weight off my back for now. His lack of progress the past year has been unsettling — though not entirely unexpected given South Africa’s economy.

Bongeka and MusaBut the other day Mtuseni posted a WhatsApp pic of his sister Bongeka and brother Musa. I haven’t seen them since my visit three years ago. They are beautiful, sweet kids — and in the back of my mind I’ve always thought about what and when I might do something to help them. Their situation is bad. Poor farm schooling. Little food and no utilities at home. A shack-tavern next door in the settlement that is shockingly loud. There are so many risk factors facing these two kids, but they’re not statistics. They’re great, polite, well-spoken kids who call me Mr. Mike on the phone, who cherished the cards and gifts I sent back with Mtuseni after his visit last July.

I’m still climbing out of debt from my long-distance son’s college and trip expenses … but in the future, as soon as I can, I want to help Bongeka and Musa. Because if Mtuseni calls me dad, then his sister and brother are in some way my kids too.

 


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A New Chapter

January 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

City YearMtuseni has been out of classes for 15 months now — and formally graduated from college for seven months. He’s had zero job interviews, although he did help some guy set up a community radio station in the Diepsloot township a few months ago. He even did a few live DJ shifts on the mic, but was disappointed to learn afterwards that the web transmission wasn’t working so he was spinning and talking to himself. He’s been very frustrated the past few months and (naively) thought he’d be employed in a great job by now. The realities of 60 percent youth unemployment are beginning to make sense to him now; the situation in South Africa is dire.

But Monday Mtuseni starts as a Service Leader with City Year Johannesburg! I’m thrilled. This was my fallback idea last year in case he couldn’t find a job; he was unaware of the program. It was founded 25 years ago in Boston and is in many cities across the country. It started in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request after he saw the program on a visit to Boston. The exposure to different people, experiences and training is what Mtuseni needs to set himself apart in the job market from so many others with a similar education. And it will give my still-brooding adolescent some needed emotional maturity. I checked out the program’s Facebook page and know he will thrive; I’m even a bit jealous — such a new adventure!

However, Mtuseni is somewhat measured in his response. He was wowed and took tons of photos when we toured City Year headquarters in Boston last summer and met with the VP. But now that he’s in, my impression is that he thinks the program is somehow a step back. Indeed, it’s not a job, though he does get a small monthly stipend. For someone who so desperately wants to escape the settlement and have a normal life with utilities and TV and food and safety… he really wants a job. Yesterday. But so do millions of his peers. I’ve been trying to help him see that the City Year experience will open so many doors for him, will make his resume stand out from others. He gets it on some level, but for someone in his situation — and for any 22-year-old — life can’t move fast enough for all the things he wants.

But he signed his contract and got fitted for his City Year uniform — and after a few weeks training will be assisting at a primary school in Soweto. It will be grueling; it’s full-time and he has a very long commute on Joburg’s packed taxis. He’ll be nervous at first, then fall into his usual mix of cocky and grouchy and committed and thrilled. I’m reminded of the old Peace Corps slogan: “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But the ten months will fly and then he’ll join the elite group of City Year alumni at graduation in November, It’s a big deal. Last year the US ambassador to South Africa was there. I will be there, too. Brimming with pride at how far my shy boy in the little yellow high school uniform has come in these few years! And getting ready for another chapter.



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