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They say that attitude plays a big role in a person’s success in life. If this is true, then Bongeka is well on her way.

She’s working this weekend on an application essay for a scholarship at school. Getting one would be another feather in her cap after the five (!) academic awards she won last year. And of course I wouldn’t mind a break from tuition payments.

Writing with Mtuseni has always been like pulling teeth. We’re battling now about him revising his resume. When I told Bongeka to think up some ideas for her essay and work on them this weekend, I sort of let go and hoped for the best. So I was surprised when she sent me a photo this morning of a handwritten essay draft! (I’ve heard that girls are more responsible than boys. Perhaps she will be easier to deal with than Mtuseni … who tests me at every other turn.)

Her essay started a bit soft, with the strongest information buried in the center. She is, after all, only in eighth grade. I sent back some suggestions to move things around and add a couple points –and explained that the best writing comes from revising — and she said “Ok.” If I get a revised draft from her I will be stunned and overjoyed. Mtuseni never revised the writing he sent to me, despite much feedback and discussion and encouragement. He’s very sensitive to criticism and quick to put up walls. The real problem is that he was never really taught to write in high school. I’m hoping that private school will provide Bongeka this critical skill.

Regardless of whether I see a revised essay from Bongeka or if she receives a scholarship, one sentence this morning made me smile and realize that — with help and encouragement — she’ll do okay on her path.

She wrote, “I am brilliant, optimistic, successful, and obedient.”

Given her circumstances, what a fantastic attitude! That is half the battle won. Now, to just keep her safe and healthy and climbing the ladder of learning.

Double Trouble

March 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

I always shut my phone off at night because I don’t want notifications to wake me up — a high risk with South Africa being six or seven hours ahead of US Eastern time. When I turned it on this morning I heard a quick series of chimes all from WhatsApp. Usually that means Mtuseni has sent me a bunch of photos.

But not this time… The first message was from Mtuseni, telling me he’d been in a “little car accident” when driving to work. (Since he normally takes jitney taxis, I’m not yet sure how this scenario occurred.He doesn’t have a car.) He said he’s “completely fine” so not to worry about him. We texted briefly this morning, and I learned it was his fault — just a rear-ender in traffic, but the car isn’t insured. I don’t know how that works in South Africa in terms of covering damage. But seeing the word “car accident” is always a bit unsettling… and roadways in Johannesburg are notoriously dangerous. He better have been wearing his seat belt!

Following that was a series of messages from Bongeka. She got a heads up about a school field trip to see a play in Pretoria. Only the first 65 students from Grades 7, 8, and 9 who pay the fee will get to attend. She asked ,”May you please pay for me because I’d like to be part of the theater.” I’ve almost always paid her school costs, or Mtuseni will pay for small things I’m not aware of. But now that I’m directly connected to Bongeka via WhatsApp, I hear firsthand about this “first come, first served” event. It was typical of her… sweet and polite.

So I woke up to a kid who got into his first fender bender and another kid asking for money for a school event. Gave me another little insight into the parenting game. (And there’s still one more kid to come!)


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Walking the Talk

February 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

Mtuseni told me a couple years back that his sister Bongeka was smart. And he was worried about both his young siblings languishing in the underfunded, overcrowded, unheated, public farm school that he attended. Although I was hesitant about committing to put the kids through private school — for far longer than Mtuseni’s three years of college — I also knew from his stories and the media how bad South Africa’s public schools are. Still, I figured I had some time since the kids were both fairly young.

But one day Mtuseni said he found Bongeka crying outside the settlement because kids were bullying and ostracizing her because she was smart. I know all-too-well the pain of being bullied. I couldn’t let this sweet girl suffer — and certainly not for being a good student! So I quickly got her into Meridian, a private school not far from her settlement. After a rocky first term, she bounced back, lost her shyness and grew more confident, and in many classes earned grades higher than Mtuseni ever got.

But my knowledge of her first year was all second-hand — report cards and discussions with her principal. I wondered how “smart” she really was, and who I would be dealing with for the long haul toward graduation. Since being able to chat with her directly this year (and for the first time) on WhatsApp, I’ve quickly realized that I have a committed potential little star on my hands. Her texts are so articulate and have a surprisingly sophisticated and mature humor… for a girl who just turned 14. It’s like chatting with a mini-adult. By contrast, when I first connected with Mtuseni at 16, he was an immature, yet earnest, goofball — one reason I quickly fell in love with him.

But Bongeka is much more serious and focused. What kind of eighth grader posts this as their social media status?…

go and get success

 

And when I asked her on Friday if she had a fun weekend planned, I got this response.

saturday school

Hmmmm… Saturday school wouldn’t seem to be at the top of any kid’s fun list.

Bongeka told me the name of the school and I looked it up. It’s a pretty swanky private school nearby. This morning she told me that they learned about atoms and molecules yesterday. But it’s not just for science. It’s also for English and math. This extra Saturday school is free, runs for several weeks, and is not associated with her regular school. Her mother didn’t sign her up. Going to school on Saturdays “for more learning” was Bongeka’s idea!

This kid is gonna go far. I’m eager to see where that energy and commitment will lead. The challenge will be keeping Bongeka healthy, safe, and secure in the horrible settlement environment. Looks like more rollercoaster times for me ahead…


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fun day 1 4x6It’s been a while since my last post here — just over a year, in fact. In some ways the previous post about Mtuseni’s trip to Washington DC with City Year seemed a fitting way to conclude our story, although certainly our relationship would continue. And blogging requires considerable time and commitment; with Mtuseni somewhat on cruise control, I decided to pivot a bit and focus more on my own life.

But the journey with my son is never-ending — and as I hinted at in a previous post, my role has recently expanded. For how could I help Mtuseni forge a better life, yet not do anything for his younger sister and brother? After Mtuseni told me last December that his sweet sister Bongeka was being teased and ostracized — both at school and in the community — I had to take action. I’ve been there, at the bottom of the adolescent pecking order, and my parents putting me into private high school was one of their better parenting moments. And I know from Mtuseni and news reports how terrible South Africa’s public schools are, particularly the more rural ones. Luckily I found a big, new private school ten minutes away from the family’s settlement. Bongeka started seventh grade at Meridian Cosmo City School in January. It’s been a tricky transition, but she’s steadily finding her feet. She’s taking exams now and starts winter break in a couple weeks — already halfway through her first year!

So going forward, the Long-Distance Dad blog will share stories of Bongeka’s experiences. I’m completing the application now for Musa so he can start sixth grade at Meridian next year. And although Mtuseni has a job, his ongoing challenges and victories will be shared here. There will be many more tales to tell.

Some people have told me “You’ve done enough already with Mtuseni. You don’t need to do more.” Logically I don’t need to, but I want to. That’s just me. My years with Mtuseni have been a string of bills and a rollercoaster ride of debt, not to mention constant low-level stress given the realities of South African poverty. Perhaps I’m philanthropic beyond my means. Maybe I’m just crazy. But these three kids have become my family. And I can help them to have brighter futures. As I look at how many calendar pages have flipped through my life and sometimes wonder what it’s all been for — I know that Mtuseni, Bongeka, and Musa will be my legacy. That’s my reward. That’s why I’m here.

I hate roller coasters, and I have a feeling that the years ahead might make my time with Mtuseni seem like a merry-go-round. But I’m strapped in and have already crested that first tall hill with Bongeka and am hurtling through the early twists and turns. This e-ticket ride continues…


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