My first image of Mtuseni came from a photo supplied by the organization that matched us for mentoring. He’s sporting a yellow public school uniform shirt, clutching a bookbag and wearing the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen. He says he was 16 when it was taken, shortly before we met. He looks so young in it, more like middle-school age.
I can get teary-eyed when I look at that photo, pinned over my desk. Little did I know what an incredible personal journey would unfold for both of us when I was first captivated by that smile. In some ways, he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy.”
But in a few short years the boy has quickly become a man — albeit with the typical knuckle-headedness of a male approaching 20.
The behavioral changes I expect. If they weren’t happening, I wouldn’t be doing my job. But what surprises us both is a recent growth spurt. He’s always been about low-average height, at least by American standards. But recently, he’s grown a couple inches. Last month I had to buy him new pants because his were too short and he felt embarrassed at school.
When I saw Mtuseni in January, I teased him about the 14 whiskers on his chin, which he would absently twist when focused on something, like a crusty old professor or budding philosopher. He also had the soft shadow of a mustache then — so I was shocked four months later to see in photos how dark it’s become. He doesn’t like the mustache, and I told him it might be time to buy a razor. His first shave should take about 25 seconds.
I don’t know where this sudden growth is coming from. I thought boys finished developing by age 16. Maybe it’s spurred by exposure to a more dynamic world and greater responsibilities at school. Maybe it’s my pestering him to eat better and take the vitamins I bought. Or maybe it’s simply genetics.
Of course, mustache aside, Mtuseni is proud of his growth. He told me the other day that one of his best friends is now “too short.” (Ahh, the competitive posturing of males.) And I’m impressed too. Maybe it’s the dad in me talking, but he’s become a handsome young man — who not only has more physical stature, but as he says can “stand tall.”
From Day One, kids want to grow up. That’s their job, and Mtuseni is no different. Unlike most parents, I didn’t have the bittersweet privilege of watching a child transform all-too-quickly from first steps to first driver’s license. Still, the change from my little yellow polo shirt boy to confident young man has been amazing to watch… and far too fast.
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