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A year ago today was Labor Day, and our first real adventure day on the Long-Distance Dad road trip. 

At the hotel in Jersey, we waited a half hour for a lost Uber driver who clearly never heard of deodorant. While it was hot that day (actually, it was brutal the whole month!) it was only 9:00 a.m. I would have appreciated wearing a mask in that tiny Honda Civic!  

After the most zig-zagging, convoluted drive ever, we finally arrived at Liberty Park to catch the ferry. Was fascinated by an abandoned railway station there, with an ornate wrought iron roof, and the old track signs. Mtuseni wasn’t that impressed.

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Still trying to erase the stink of the Uber driver from our senses.

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train station roof

I can picture this station once bustling with travelers on their own journeys to near and far. 

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liberty ghost tracks

Paths to nowhere now… but once to many somewheres.

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antique railroad destination track sign

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Discovered the new Empty Sky 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park, which points to where the Twin Towers had stood. Mtuseni knew surprisingly little of that event. A New Jersey reporter interviewed me about that day and my personal connection to it. Tough memories; simple but powerful memorial.

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empty sky 9-11 memorial in new jersey

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Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were new sights for both of us. Ellis Island is so impressive. I got emotional thinking of my grandparents arriving from Eastern Europe. Such courage — they were only teeneagers! I want to return and dig into the archives, find their records.  

Check out our Instagram greeting from Ellis Island!

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ellis sign mtu

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ellis island outside

What immigrants must have thought — and felt — as they approached this grand building!

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ellis sign

Crowds… I miss them now. 

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great hall crowd

The Great Hall where my grandparents were processed. Just… wow.

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great hall michael

Maybe before I die I’ll figure out selfies and selfie sticks. (Actually, I really don’t care.)

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There is a room with walls covered in citizen documents. Just randomly scanning them, this one caught my eye. The woman lived in my hometown way back when — and I had just ridden my bike past her address days earlier. Crazy!

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citizen doc

Butters Row was the road to my kindergarten. It still has a one-lane wooden bridge!

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Mtuseni has wanted to see Miss Liberty since his first US visit seven years ago. He was so excited. It is a beacon of America, still — and forever, let’s hope. Exciting for me too as I had a small replica of it on my desk as a kid.

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liberty boat

Crowds on a boat — the good old days.

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liberty sky

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mtu liberty front

Probably never imagined being here growing up in a shack in South Africa.

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statue of liberty

Goober alert. (But hey, why not?)

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liberty shop girls

My funny gift shop pals. I tried to be Mtuseni’s wing man on the trip; he wasn’t buying it. American girls intimidate him, I think. 

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Took the ferry to Manhattan and walked to the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial. Ogled at the Oculus. (And got lost in it — the first of several times. Cool architecture, dumb layout.) 

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outside wing of oculus in manhattan

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oculus inside

Damn, I look exhausted. And it’s only the first full day! 

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Took the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal … from the sublime Oculus to the armpit of the universe… and a quick shuttle bus back to the hotel. A great day… with so many ahead of us!

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skyline from liberty both

I so wish we were there now. And that Mtuseni wasn’t 8,000 miles away.   

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Back to Manhattan tomorrow!

Soaring at City Year

May 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

A few years ago, in a Cape Town karaoke cafe with Mtuseni, a guy sang I Believe I Can Fly, a powerful, uplifting anthem. He had an amazing voice. The place seemed to be a popular hangout for college kids, and as the song built to its crescendo, everyone was standing and shouting the refrain “I can fly!” like in a church revival. I looked around the room and at Mtuseni, watching all these bright faces full of hope and promise — and my tears just started flowing. Knowing the difficult challenges and harsh realities that exist in the country, I wanted Mtuseni and all young South Africans to be able to succeed. To thrive. To fly. Whenever I hear the song now, I’m taken back to that night — and it still gets to me.

Mtuseni has totally embraced his City Year experience since the program began in February, and in April he started working with students at a school in Tembisa township. From the beginning, I was just pleased and relieved that he is engaged and happy; since graduating from college last July, he never got one job interview.

I was impressed and a bit surprised when Mtuseni was elected co-captain of his City Year team a couple months ago. I couldn’t have been more proud … but then it got better. Six weeks ago he was selected as one of two corps members to represent South Africa at the City Year National Leadership Summit! He just returned from three days in Washington, DC, where he attended meetings and receptions with executives, staff, dignitaries, members of Congress — and most importantly, other City Year corps members from across the United States. I couldn’t be in DC, but thanks to Twitter at #cysummit, I was able to follow Mtuseni’s activities in real-time. To see his bright eyes and ecstatic grin in photos, hanging out with peers from across the country, all sharing his commitment to public service — I was beaming and walking on air.

His schedule was packed and he would only text me little snippets, but on Thursday morning he said “I’m speaking tonight, and I’m nervous.” I had no idea he was expected to speak, so I gave him a little text pep talk and then he was gone. The summit was hosting a gala reception at the Newseum that evening, in part to honor the 10th anniversary of City Year South Africa and the fifth anniversary of City Year London. On Twitter, I saw photos of the South African CEO and the other corps representative speaking at a small podium, then the tweets switched to members of the UK corps. I figured the social media team didn’t get a picture of Mtuseni, or, worse, that nerves got the best of him and he bailed. “Too bad,” I thought.

And then I saw this come across the Twitter wire…

cy summit newseum mtu8

To see him up on that stage, speaking to a crowd in the soaring lobby of the Newseum, has to be the proudest moment of my life. He texted me quickly afterwards and said “Well, I did it.” I congratulated him and told him to go enjoy his night. He said “I’m gonna have a blast!”

Then moments later, City Year SoA tweeted this:

cy summit mtuseni speech

I never anticipated that Mtuseni would talk about me in his speech. I figured he would discuss his work in Johannesburg and the program’s value to the city. Needless to say, the tears flowed freely when I saw that.

I was pretty naive when I offered to support Mtuseni and put him through school; it was infinitely more than I anticipated. The journey has been pretty rough at times, but it’s also been the best decision of my life. My work’s not over with him, but these images were the first time I’ve been able to step back for a moment and think, “I did it.” I look at the picture of a teenage Mtuseni in his school uniform hanging over my desk, the first image I ever had of him, and I can’t believe how far “my little yellow polo shirt boy” has come.

At minimum, I’ve always wanted Mtuseni to be happy and safe and secure. But knowing what a special person he is, I really want him to fly. This week, he took wing … and is soaring.

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 

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Source: City Year

 


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Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.


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Boston+Media+House+graduationThroughout this nearly five-year journey with Mtuseni, there have been many circumstances that are strangely uncanny, as if fate has been a major player in this relationship. One example is his wanting to attend a South African college called Boston Media House, when I live 8,000 miles away in Boston, a most American city. A more recent (and less fun) example is the laptop that I bought specifically for our webcam chats when we were first matched by a nonprofit — which died a few hours after I dropped him at the airport this week, apparently signaling the close of this chapter in our lives.

And the most surprising coincidence is that Mtuseni’s graduation from college — our primary mission all these years — fell on the Fourth of July. For this event truly signifies independence in many ways. Like any kid leaving the relatively cloistered environment of college, Mtuseni now enters the real world on his own. I was such a typically American, vocally demanding parent-advocate for him at school that they probably have a dart board with my face in the main office. But I don’t have the same power to move the South African job market in Mtuseni’s favor, and more importantly, I shouldn’t try. The school gave him knowledge and skills, and I gave him wings. Two years ago I watched him and many other kids sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a Cape Town karaoke bar. Now with his college diploma in hand, it’s up to Mtuseni to fly solo.

This milestone achievement also marks my own independence, which is bittersweet. In many ways I put my life on hold to make sure Mtuseni got over this finish line, a task that was much more difficult than I ever expected. While I’m excited to pivot back to my own personal journey, and will surely draw upon this experience, it feels a bit sad to relinquish something that required such intense focus and commitment. Indeed, I feel a profound sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to say “mission accomplished.” But the flip side is a slightly empty feeling of “Now what?”

Graduation doesn’t mean the end of Mtuseni and me, but things will change. Even during his visit here last month he seemed much more independent than last year’s visit — much to my occasional frustration and chagrin. But that only means I did my job. For his graduation is not only the culmination of fifteen years in school, it also marks his entry into adult life. And that is a cause for celebration!

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Mtuseni and his proud mom Nester

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Mtuseni with his best college buddy Poloko

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First in the family to graduate college!


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