Archives For inspiration

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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The Book: An Update

March 15, 2015 — 5 Comments

ocean+Cape Town+ Cliffs BeachAs people have listened to me talk about parenting Mtuseni from 8,000 miles away and putting him through college, many suggested I write a book about the experience. Now that he’s graduated and on to new adventures, here’s an update on the book project.

But first, thanks to Renee at unpackedwriter for tagging me on this book “blog tour.” She’s working on a memoir of her time as a young teacher in Alaska. From the synopsis, it sounds like it has movie potential! Do check out her blog tour post.


My original plan for a book about Mtuseni was to focus on whether he would actually finish college. Things were touch-and-go as we navigated issues that I never anticipated; it required far more than writing tuition checks and being an occasional cheerleader!

But over time our relationship grew from formal mentoring to father and son – something else I never anticipated. Having survived cold, critical parents and lackluster relationships, I finally came to understand what love is through Mtuseni. And as I helped him become a man, in many ways he did the same for me. That story of transformation is the focus of Long-Distance Dad: A Journey of Two Hearts.

Currently the project is a 50-page detailed proposal with sample chapters, and is making the rounds of literary agents. A sample e-book can be viewed on Creatavist; with bits of the various media the final book will contain – because I’ve saved everything! Text chat and social media snippets with Mtuseni’s perspective. Pictures of his small shack and family. Video from our trip to Cape Town and his first time in America. All woven into a narrative storyline, with brief thematic chapters offering my perceptions on issues ranging from resilience and poverty to sacrifice and love.

Mtu Fathers Day-rev-cropThe book is designed to immerse readers in the story as a middle-aged, middle-class, gay, white American man and a poor, black, Christian, South African Zulu teenager grow from total strangers into a deep loving bond. Laughter, grief, celebration, failure, respect, rebellion – it’s all there. From an insecure “shack boy” with vague hopes of a better life to a college graduate and now the captain of his City Year 2015 service corps.

The story still amazes me … and I lived it. I’m eager to tell it and hopefully inspire others to help a young person in need. Here’s a few excerpts from the first two chapters. Enjoy – and please share it on your social media channels. Thanks!

goodnight much love-crop

 


As the shock of turning fifty approached, I felt adrift, ambivalent, unfulfilled. None of the cylinders in my existential engine were firing. My life desperately needed meaning. Purpose. Excitement. Change! I considered tossing a dart at a map and moving wherever it landed. I embraced cliché and looked into grad schools.

But these “solutions” wouldn’t pay off for some time, if at all. My miserable mind needed a booster shot immediately. I’d done some volunteering in the past and always enjoyed it. I’d been a companion to a bitter old shut-in who was a nurse in WWII, reviewed vowel sounds with illiterate prisoners, and served food at luncheons for natty gay seniors. Maybe I’d find something similar, just to tide me over until I started grad school or set out for new pastures.

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The organization’s video chats were hosted on software that included an electronic white board and other bells and whistles for me to wow Mtuseni with my mentoring capabilities. I imagined myself as Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”—imparting knowledge and life lessons and becoming beloved.

This starry-eyed scenario accounted for half of my thinking. The other part of my brain was grappling with my general disdain for kids. I don’t find their self-absorbed chatter particularly interesting, and they don’t share my opinions on politics, alternative rock, or craft cocktails. My mindset before the first session with Mtuseni boiled down to one point: “What the hell were we going to talk about?”

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Mtuseni was working so hard; I was truly impressed. But what if his matric scores qualified him for college? Could I really take on the responsibility of paying his tuition? Every night I tossed and turned, the debate raging in my head. I didn’t seek advice from anyone, certain they’d reject the idea for pragmatic reasons. And they would be right. I’d made decisions based more on my heart than my head before, and most hadn’t turned out well. And so much was unclear. I knew little about South Africa or Mtuseni’s situation. I still couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his last name! Was I going to shell out thousands of dollars for him?

It finally came down to one point: A year earlier I had been desperate for some meaning in my life and to have an impact on the world. With Mtuseni, the universe was offering me a challenge and an opportunity. I couldn’t walk away from it. And I couldn’t turn my back on him. The decision was made. My head was still nervous about it, but my heart felt good.

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The following week was our final video chat. Mtuseni was alone in the computer lab and our time stretched past the usual thirty minutes, then past an hour. All the while I tried to keep my emotions in check.

Finally, Mtuseni said he had to go home and study; his first matric exam was the next day. As we waved goodbye I said, “Okay, buddy. Good luck tomorrow. You’ll do great. We’ll text later. I love you.” I hadn’t expected to say those last three words; I had rarely said them in my life. They just came from somewhere inside, easily and honestly.

Then the screen went blank. And I let my emotions flow.

We were ready to start a new chapter, but what exactly did I sign up for? And when, if ever, would I see Mtuseni again?


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A New Chapter

January 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

City YearMtuseni has been out of classes for 15 months now — and formally graduated from college for seven months. He’s had zero job interviews, although he did help some guy set up a community radio station in the Diepsloot township a few months ago. He even did a few live DJ shifts on the mic, but was disappointed to learn afterwards that the web transmission wasn’t working so he was spinning and talking to himself. He’s been very frustrated the past few months and (naively) thought he’d be employed in a great job by now. The realities of 60 percent youth unemployment are beginning to make sense to him now; the situation in South Africa is dire.

But Monday Mtuseni starts as a Service Leader with City Year Johannesburg! I’m thrilled. This was my fallback idea last year in case he couldn’t find a job; he was unaware of the program. It was founded 25 years ago in Boston and is in many cities across the country. It started in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request after he saw the program on a visit to Boston. The exposure to different people, experiences and training is what Mtuseni needs to set himself apart in the job market from so many others with a similar education. And it will give my still-brooding adolescent some needed emotional maturity. I checked out the program’s Facebook page and know he will thrive; I’m even a bit jealous — such a new adventure!

However, Mtuseni is somewhat measured in his response. He was wowed and took tons of photos when we toured City Year headquarters in Boston last summer and met with the VP. But now that he’s in, my impression is that he thinks the program is somehow a step back. Indeed, it’s not a job, though he does get a small monthly stipend. For someone who so desperately wants to escape the settlement and have a normal life with utilities and TV and food and safety… he really wants a job. Yesterday. But so do millions of his peers. I’ve been trying to help him see that the City Year experience will open so many doors for him, will make his resume stand out from others. He gets it on some level, but for someone in his situation — and for any 22-year-old — life can’t move fast enough for all the things he wants.

But he signed his contract and got fitted for his City Year uniform — and after a few weeks training will be assisting at a primary school in Soweto. It will be grueling; it’s full-time and he has a very long commute on Joburg’s packed taxis. He’ll be nervous at first, then fall into his usual mix of cocky and grouchy and committed and thrilled. I’m reminded of the old Peace Corps slogan: “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But the ten months will fly and then he’ll join the elite group of City Year alumni at graduation in November, It’s a big deal. Last year the US ambassador to South Africa was there. I will be there, too. Brimming with pride at how far my shy boy in the little yellow high school uniform has come in these few years! And getting ready for another chapter.


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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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