Archives For Cape Town

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…

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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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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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New Directions

May 30, 2014 — 2 Comments

Almost five years after we first met, Mtuseni and I are embarking on new paths. He finished his internship and will graduate in Johannesburg on July Fourth — declaring his own understanding of independence! Then he’ll enter the “real world” to find a job in radio. It won’t be easy, and recent news reports hint at South Africa slipping into recession, but he’s excited. When I referred to him playfully as a shack boy the other day, he corrected me and said “I’m no shack boy. I’m a Boston graduate.” He’s worked hard for that.

It’s a time of changes. I’m adjusting to the empty-nest feeling of Mtuseni not needing me for every little thing. The day-to-day adventures of getting him educated academically and emotionally have dissipated, as reflected by the recent decline in blog posts here. This is not the end of our story or relationship; there will be more twists and turns ahead for sure.

But recently my creative energies have shifted to the book version of Long-Distance Dad. I’ve always seen this blog as a diary to help me capture and process events and impressions about this incredible journey. Sharing these stories and hearing your responses has been immensely gratifying — and your comments talked me off the ledge more than a few times. Now it’s time to share the story of Mtuseni and me with a much bigger audience. After weeks of delicious torment that only a writer can appreciate, the book proposal is complete and will begin making the rounds to agents.

ocean+Cape Town+ Cliffs BeachOne part of the proposal is a brief e-book sample, which draws upon the treasure trove of images and media I’ve gathered during these five years. It’s only web-based for now; if I get time I’ll create versions for readers and tablets. Click the cover image to open the e-book. Feel free to share using the Facebook and Twitter icons at the top of the book. I hope you enjoy it. There’s even a surprise for those of you who’ve wanted to hear from Mtuseni himself!

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I’m not going away or shutting down this blog entirely; I’m sure there will be things to celebrate or gripe about now and then. But I plan on devoting a lot of time to writing a book that entertains people and inspires them to help kids in need — either down the street or across the world.

Thanks again for all your support, from both Mtuseni and me.


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Cape Town+inspiation+motivation+quoteI’ve always been a collector of inspirational quotes. Sometimes a few crisp, resonant words — whether from a wise philosopher or just an average person who had a flash of brilliance — can make you stop and say, “Damn, that speaks right to me and where I am in my life.”

When I’m feeling stuck or lost or in need of some perspective beyond the muck and monsters in my head, I’ll skim through my small notebooks of quotes and always feel rejuvenated for the journey.

I’ve often shared quotes with Mtuseni to keep him motivated, lift him up, or remind him of what’s possible. This quote is a favorite that I use whenever he’s faced with being stretched past his comfort zone. And it works — he’s become much more open to taking risks and striving for far-off goals… and knows that falling short a few times is no reason to give up.

I can’t remember where this quote came from, but I do know it’s from a child learning to swim. The state of wonder and innocence over the “moving rock” makes it enchanting — and effective.

Keep swimming, keep trying — and in time it will become easy to reach that rock at the finish line!


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