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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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Magic Year(s)

September 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

NewburyportLast week I was reading a blog I wrote for a university as an MBA student. The first two posts were written weeks before I met Mtuseni; it was a weird glimpse into my life just before everything changed. My focus then was finally getting a master’s degree — and I was also gonna do this mentoring thing with some kid in South Africa. That seemed like an interesting and noble diversion at the time.

The MBA adventure lasted one semester … not my cup of tea on many levels. And five years later, that “South African kid” is the center of my world.

And he was a kid… barely 17 when we first met. Mtuseni turns 22 today! I can’t believe it. When we talked about his birthday last weekend, Mtuseni said he was getting old. Much as I’d give anything to be 22 again (without today’s twerking, texting, and monotonous hip-hop), he’s right. He’s much older now. He was naive, sheltered, and insecure when we first met… and the guidance and opportunities I’ve provided have helped him to grow and mature in many ways. (Though like any male his age Mtuseni can qualify for a Mr. Knucklehead crown on most days!)

But he is different from five years ago. I’m different. And our relationship is changing. His visit to the US in June made that clear… and we’ve had a bumpy summer of adjustments. For me it’s about letting go, allowing him to sink or swim. For Mtuseni it’s about stepping up and stretching himself even farther, as he takes his college diploma into a dismal South African job market. Two months after graduation, he’s already surprised and frustrated at “how long it’s taking.” Welcome to the real world, son!

But as I told Mtuseni, double-digit birthdays only come around every eleven years — so being 22 is a magic year. I think good things are ahead — for him and for me (although my double-digit birthday comes next fall). Mtuseni’s next adventure may be with a South African chapter of City Year, the US community service program. We met the program’s vice-president at the headquarters here in Boston. Mtuseni was impressed, and he recently met with a program manager in Johannesburg. Applications are due next month. I think he’ll benefit from the leadership training, and will enjoy tutoring kids in the public schools — because he’s always wanted to inspire young people and help make a better future for his country. Could I ask for a better kid young man?

Looking back to that earnest, shy, squeaky-voiced shack boy I met on glitchy video chat way back when, I’d say these past five years have been pretty magic, too!


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Top 5 Mentor Moments for 2013

December 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to a close. This past year with Mtuseni has been marked by the usual ups and downs — and some sticky transitions. Despite the challenges of mentoring across many divides, life with my boy young man always offers more sweet than sour. And this year was marked by some pretty sweet experiences…

1. Becoming Big Man on Campus

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Entering college from a small farm school was traumatic for Mtuseni; my shy little fish floundered in that big pond his first semester, what he called the “darkest days of life.” But with encouragement he came out of his shell, made friends, and was named to the Student Committee his second year. And he didn’t stop climbing the ladder. Over  summer break in January he worked as a campus representative — and was elected Vice President of the Student Committee for his final year. I still get choked up when I think how far he’s come.

Check out these posts for more…

Summer Fun, Winter Doldrums

Teen Roulette

2. Father’s Day Wishes

2013 fathers day email -cropI wear many hats with Mtuseni: mentor, coach, brother, friend, enforcer, teacher…and father. I never expected to have kids, so experiencing that crazy parental stew of pride, worry, responsibility, fear, frustration, and deep love with this knucklehead has been the biggest and best surprise of my life. It’s a delicate balance: a mentor is not a father, and the calculus between us shifts constantly. But for a sensitive kid whose father walked out when he was 12, Mtuseni craves that connection and anchor. And when he acknowledges me in that way, well it feels pretty damn good.

3. Mtuseni Comes to America

Public+Garden+BostonAfter three years and four attempts, this year Mtuseni finally got a (ten year!) US visitor visa. To see that jet-lagged kid walk into the arrival hall at Kennedy Airport was thrilling. Foreign travel is eye-opening and life-changing for anyone — and is even more so coming from a developing country to America. It was wonderful to have Mtuseni here, have him meet people in my life, show him places from my childhood, and to spoil the heck out of him. There were a few unanticipated bumps in the road, and it was a learning experience for both of us. But we’re both ready for him to come back.

Check out these posts for more…

Oh Happy Day

Places and Activities I Enjoyed in Boston

Last Words On the Trip … Maybe

4. Coursework Complete — Check.

Boston+Media+House+radioThree years ago at this time Mtuseni was waiting for the results of his national matric exams — which would determine his eligibility for college. He had already done well on the school entry exam, and just needed that final credential. A month later he began that first semester — and tanked his first exam with a grade of 20. I thought we might be looking at a fast flameout. But he bounced back, loving school even when griping about the workload and stress, and in November he finished his last semester of classes. Now all he needs is a 100-hour internship and the mortarboard and robe are his! (And tuition bills for me are over — woohoo!)

Check out these posts for more…

Rounding the Turn

One Chapter Closes

5. Letting Go…

This one is recent…and still a work in progress. Much as my heart clings to the quiet high school boy I first met, Mtuseni turned 21 this year — a milestone of adulthood in South Africa. He bucks and chafes and argues against me these days in a natural push for independence. Although he’s not fully prepared for the big world (are any of us ever really prepared?) I’ve begun to loosen the reins. To give him more responsibility for his life and accountability for his actions. To say ‘no’ and set limits. To let him sink or swim.

It’s hard; he still has so much to learn, and I’ve enjoyed this surprise experience of parenting in my grouchy middle age. Selfishly I want more nest-and-apron-string time, but that won’t do Mtuseni any favors. He needs to learn to fly on his own. And I need to trust that he — we — will be okay. I’ve just made that shift in mindset the past few weeks, and it’s been tough but good. And it’s funny how kids fight you to get free, then when you begin pushing them out of the nest they hold on for dear life. Is this last 2013 “moment” a sweet one? More bittersweet. But a positive and necessary milestone on the journey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And 2014 promises more successes, transitions, and celebrations. With all fingers and toes crossed, Mtuseni will get a radio internship early this year and graduate in April. He should also get his first real job. There will hopefully be a South Africa trip for me to see him and his family, and another US visit for Mtuseni. On the story front, the Long-Distance Dad blog will be revamped, a prototype interactive e-book will be released, and formal pitching to agents of book and media projects will get underway.

Thanks from Mtuseni and me for all your support, perspective, and encouragement over these past years. And keep following — and sharing — our story in 2014 and beyond!

Happy New Year!!

Times+Square+New York


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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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