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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.

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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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