Mtuseni 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.