Archives For teens

Father’s Day

June 18, 2017 — Leave a comment

Over the years I’ve received some pretty amazing, heartfelt Father’s Day messages from Mtuseni. This is the first year I’ve been in direct contact with Bongeka since starting her in private school last year and getting her a tablet. We don’t chat a heck of a lot — what 13-year-old talks much to any adult, never mind one who’s half a world away? So I was happily surprised to receive this WhatsApp greeting from her this morning.

Funny… after pressing hard on her last week to complete another scholarship application — and a few weeks earlier for not joining after-school activities — Bongeka still comes back with a dose of sweetness. I guess that means she’s starting to understand what I’m doing. And that I’m doing a good job.

Sometimes the stress of helping to raise these kids in South Africa really gets to me. In so many ways I’m powerless; there are so many obstacles confronting Bongeka and Mtuseni. But a silly crown and a few words and emoticons sweep it all away for a while.

Indeed… I’m lucky.


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The Lying Game

May 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

Back in my early days with Mtuseni, I thought I had caught him in a lie. I can’t recall what the situation was, but it didn’t make me happy. I’d recently committed to paying for his college, guiding him to a better future — basically I was all in for the long haul. But if he was not going to be truthful with me, then we had a major problem. Lying signals disrespect, and that was unacceptable given the sacrifices I was making and was prepared to make for him.

I confronted him about it on a phone call, because this was too important for texting. He became upset and insulted. He explained the situation and said earnestly, “I will never lie to you.” And in all these days, he hasn’t.

It’s very hard to guide a child who’s half a world away. Having mutual trust is important, and I’ve always had that with Mtuseni. So I was upset — and surprised and disappointed — when I became aware that Bongeka has likely been lying to me the past few months. Last year in her first year of private school we didn’t have direct contact; I just paid the bills and got updates from Mtuseni and the principal. But this year, having bought her a tablet for school and a data plan, we’ve been able to chat on WhatsApp.

It’s different than with Mtuseni. He and I first met via webcam chats, so we had the electronic face-to-face, next-best-thing-to-being-there experience. That allowed us to build a strong bond so that when the webcam program ended, we were comfortable chatting via text. By comparison, Bongeka only knows me through text exchanges — and meeting once when she was little.

She doesn’t chat with me often, but it’s been great to hear how much she’s grown up and how she likes to learn. She comes across as bright and curious and polite, with a sharp sense of humor. I’ve been pressing her to take advantage of everything the school has to offer, especially the after-school activities, from sports to clubs to extra-help sessions. Any opportunity she has for new learning experiences is good. And every minute away from the settlement and her unheated shack is also a plus.There were no extra activities in her public school; I want her to benefit as much as possible from private school, and for me to get my money’s worth.

So last term I looked at the activity calendar and told her I wanted her to join at least two, plus some help sessions. She agreed, but then always had an excuse when I followed up — usually saying the club never opened or somehow blaming the school. When second term began I told her again that I expected her to do an activity every afternoon; they are only about 45 minutes. I told her it’s important to try new things and meet new people. She agreed and told me what she would join. When I checked in last week, she said that they still hadn’t opened.

Then I saw photos of the school science fair on Facebook, and which had been listed on my second term calendar. I asked why she wasn’t in the science fair. She said she never heard about it. If I knew about it 8,000 miles away, there’s no way she never heard about it. Judging by the photos, it was a big to-do. And Bongeka likes science!

When I emailed the principal to get some clarification, she told me that the club Bongeka said she would join was already in full swing. And that the science fair was promoted throughout the school. And that she probably was “not being truthful.” To put it bluntly, she was lying to me.

I was pissed. I’m still kinda pissed. When she texts to ask for money for field trips, I send it. I make sure she has extra money to buy snacks and lunches at school so she doesn’t feel different from her friends. (There are not many kids in her school who live in shacks with no electricity.) Now, knowing that I expect her to join clubs, she lies to me. Repeatedly.

The principal said she’d discuss it with her and we could Skype about it. She told me this is a tricky age, when kids’ hormones are going crazy and they’re trying to figure out who they are. I forgot what it’s like to be 13. Looking back, I was a basket case. And I have no idea what it’s like to be a 13-year-old-girl. Thrown into a school where families have more money and resources than her uneducated mother. Trying to hold her own as a “shack girl” among peers that go home to electricity and TV and indoor plumbing. Mtuseni still struggles with that, keeping his “shack identity” a secret from his colleagues at work.

I met Mtuseni at 16, a goofball but with a strong sense of integrity…one step into manhood. Bongeka is a young adolescent, a girl, a child standing at the foot of a long rickety bridge to adulthood. Am I happy that she’s been lying to me? No. But with the principal’s help we’ll get her back on track. The principal told me that if Bongeka makes the right choices now, she’ll be fine when she comes out of this phase … at around 16 or 17. That seems like a long way off. But Bongeka’s a smart dork — like I was once. I wish someone had offered support and guidance to me at that age. Parenting was different back then. I flailed for years.

This lying game has to stop — and I need to steel myself for a long walk with Bongeka across that bridge.


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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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