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Cape+Town+South+AfricaOne night in beautiful Cape Town, Mtuseni and I were in a pizza place on Long Street — a funky strip of cafes and clubs with ornate balconies that has a New Orleans feel. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves that day, a product of being together 24/7 for nearly a week after just meeting in person for the first time. Surprisingly for this Boston-New York pizza snob — the thin-crust, brick-oven pie was really good, so I focused on that while Mtuseni ate his curry. And we both watched a guy in front fussing with a laptop and the widescreen TV.

After a while I realized he was setting up for karaoke. When I told Mtuseni, he had no idea what that meant. Even though I’d never done it, I explained to him how it worked. He seemed vaguely intrigued beneath the teenage ambivalent face he’d been wearing all day. I was grateful there would be a bit of entertainment to enjoy, rather than watching him stare at yet another soccer game on TV back in our hotel suite.

The place started to fill up, mainly with college-age kids and some middle-age folks. It was a pretty diverse crowd, more so than I had seen in Joburg. The first woman who sang was astounding, and we all whooped and hollered. Mtuseni was into it, and I was relieved and happy to see a wide grin on his face.

The night continued with a procession of “singers” of varying degrees of talent ranging from “wow, he’s good” to “damn, she’s brave” to “shit, he’s drunk.” A posse of college boys sang loud backup, cheering their buddies on. A black woman at the next table grooved with me to some classic old soul that Mtuseni never heard. And everybody sang along with folks and laughed and offered good-natured support.

We had a long session of sightseeing and a trip back to Joburg the next day, so I kept checking my watch. But Mtuseni, who usually can’t stay awake past ten, kept telling me to have another beer. I knew I’d regret it later, but why spoil the fun by playing Mr. Responsible Dad? When was Mtuseni gonna be at a bar in Cape Town again? When would I?

So the DJ announced there were only two slots left. No… this tale is not going to end with me and Mtuseni getting up and singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” Neither of us took the mic that night. But a boy got up and started singing the R. Kelly song “I Believe I Can Fly”

He was really good. And I read the lyrics on the screen, and realized that every kid in the place, including Mtuseni, was singing along at full volume. It felt like the last hour of an old church revival meeting.

“I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.
If I can see it, then I can be it.
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it.”

Victoria+Wharf+Cape+Town+South+Africa+ferris+wheelThe song is such an anthem of self-affirmation and inner strength, pride and empowerment. Watching, hearing, being among all these young South Africans — each carrying dreams of success and a better life in the face of crushing odds — singing, “I can fly!!” at the tops of their lungs… well, I had to keep my head turned from Mtuseni so he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.

As I sang along through my sobs, in that moment I knew I was doing — and would do — all that I could to help Mtuseni fly. And once he’s off the ground, I’d like to do something bigger to help more of these vibrant kids who want, and deserve, to reach their highest potential.

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The idle life of privileged wealth depicted on Downton Abbey is about as far from Mtuseni’s experience as you can get. Even the servants have it better than he does. So I was surprised to find myself nodding with something Lady Grantham said about parenting teens. Discussing the wild young cousin Rose — and remembering the feisty free spirit in her deceased daughter Lady Sybil — she said that kids think you’re fighting them to be mean and derail their lives… when really you’re just worried and frightened for them.

I thought to myself, “Yes, exactly!”

All my friends have had kids later in life, so they haven’t yet reached the epic drama of trying to raise an older teenager. I leapfrogged their childrearing experience and am wrestling with a strange and willful half-boy/half-man beast. I haven’t been able to trade war stories with peers in the trenches… or gain an insider’s perspective for this complex role. So it was enlightening to hear Lady Grantham’s simple and logical statement.

Mtuseni cap picMtuseni and I have battled so much this past year as I set limits, or push him to do things, or just flat-out tell him, “No, you’re not doing that.” There’s been considerable anger between us at times — which has surprised and distressed us both. But it’s true… much of my rationale for keeping Mtuseni under close watch is that I am always worried about him. His life is filled with so many challenges and risks, and like any 20-year-old he is brimming with an enviable sense of idealism and invincibility. Which can lead to bad decisions with bad consequences — particularly in South Africa — and many of which I cannot easily fix from half a world away.

I know that Mtuseni needs to chart his own way, to make his own mistakes and learn from them. And I try to be balanced and loosen the leash; I’m not a control freak with him. But it’s my responsibility to help this impatient, knock-kneed colt navigate his way to the safer, satisfying, better life he talks about constantly.

When things get really heated between us and Mtuseni says he doesn’t like when I shout at him, I say that I shout because I love him. But the fictional 1920s heiress in her British estate put a new spin on things… Some of my shouting is simply to feel a little power over the constant, nagging worry of watching a child you love pull away to enter the big, bad world on his own.

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