Archives For youth

Down… But Not Out

September 30, 2018 — Leave a comment

Oh, the magic of being in your 20s. When life stretches infinitely in front of you and everything seems possible. You’re full of vim and vigor and hope and possibility — and nothing can stop you.

I remember when Mtuseni felt that way. When he was learning and growing in college. When he graduated. When he joined City Year and became a leader and realized his dream of advancing his community. There are pictures of him from those days when I don’t think it’s humanly possible to have a broader, brighter smile.

But that was then. Mtuseni turned 26 last week — and is now in the back half of that magical decade. In America, that age would not be significant. The energy and possibility would still be at full throttle… and progress, in some form or other, would be occurring.

Mtuseni 26But progress is not common for young people in South Africa, and Mtuseni is not immune. In the 2+ years that he’s been at his dead-end admin job, he’s gone from “I can conquer the world” idealism … to an angry young man spouting ideas of revolution … to fatigue, resignation, pessimism, and bitterness.

When we talked the other day, I acknowledged that times were tough there, from what I’d been reading in the news. And I asked him if it was because the country had tipped into recession again. He laughed and said that means nothing. In his typically poetic language he said, “It’s just the day-to-day downfalls. It’s dying times in South Africa.”

National debt. Declining currency. Terrible education. Soaring crime. Political assassinations. Collapsing state-owned utilities and enterprises — like South African Airlines, which we flew to Cape Town, and the South African Broadcasting Company, where he’s wanted to work in radio for years. The country seems like a house of cards–that’s on fire.

No, youthful energy and idealism don’t last forever. Every adult has, or will, come face-to-face with that unfair reality at some point.

But not this soon. Not for my kid. Since the day we met, I’ve been impressed by and enchanted with this inner spark that Mtuseni has. It’s what drove him as a child to master English on his own. To seek out every opportunity to learn and grow. To escape the cycle of poverty and improve his life.

Now that journey has stalled. He’s still in the shack where he moved with his family as a young boy. Still without electricity or running water. Still skipping meals and counting pennies. He’s frustrated. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Crushed.

But that spark is not out. It’s in there somewhere. And I will keep it glowing and fan it to a flame that burns brighter than before. Because the world needs Mtuseni’s spark — and he, like each of us, deserves to feel happy and fulfilled in life.

My life has also felt stalled and stale for some time. I want to recapture the sense of wonder that I had in college, when I was an aspiring filmmaker and everything was amazing and all was possible and life stretched out far beyond the farthest horizon.

NewburyportSo for my son — and for myself — there are changes ahead and big plans in the works that will lift us both up. That will bring back his million watt smile. And rekindle my sense of wonder.

Get ready world. We’re coming.

 

 

 

 

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Actually, in Mtuseni’s case I should say that adults never listen. One thing that made guiding him in the early years easy and enjoyable was that he listened dutifully to everything I said and (usually) acted accordingly. Perhaps this came from the respect and deference that South African kids give to their parents.

As he got older, that changed. In his last year of college, we went through a belated period of rebellion — like he was 21 going on 15. It was jarring for me. I wasn’t used to pushback from him. Or outright rudeness. But I realized that he was just establishing his own independent identity. And at the same time testing me to see if I’d desert him. Like any boy who’s been abandoned by his birth father, Mtuseni has tried countless times to push me away to see if I’ll stick around. I have — and he knows now that I’m not going anywhere.

But in his newly and rightfully formed independence, Mtuseni picks and chooses what guidance to accept from me. One longstanding issue has been his nutrition and health. When he started college, he was always getting sick. He gets sick a lot in general. Knowing that his food intake is limited — and when he does eat, it often isn’t nutritiously dense — I told him to buy some vitamins. He said those “magic pills” are expensive, so on my first visit I brought him a couple of jars. Sure enough, he rarely got sick. When he came to visit me, he went home with more. And I always sent him a jar in his care packages. But once he started working, I stopped. If he was an adult earning a salary, he could buy his own vitamins.

He didn’t, and he’s been sick a lot lately. I’ve told him over and over to buy vitamins, but he doesn’t listen. And I’m not paying overnight secure shipping and duty fees and hassling with the inept and corrupt South African postal service for weeks to send him a couple jars of vitamins. He’s a big boy now. He can live with the consequences of his action. Or lack of it.

Bu now he’s been depressed for months. While much of it is situational, I recently read about the role of Vitamin B12 deficiency in depression. We naturally get B12 from meat, eggs, and dairy. As Mtuseni has told me many times, meat isn’t often in the family budget. And the lack of a fridge means they don’t have milk. Meals are usually veggies with pap or rice. Filling, but not nutritionally complete. Sometimes at work he’ll buy a hot dog for lunch, but often it’s just a bag of chips. I don’t know how he manages to stand upright sometimes.

So now, a simple multivitamin would improve his physical health during the cold Johannesburg winter in his unheated shack. And the B12 might alleviate his depression a bit. (Getting a better job and out of the settlement would do more for his mental state, but every little bit helps.) It breaks my heart to hear him so deflated and defeated. He’s always had a grouchy streak, but he never lacked overall optimism and idealism. That energy and spark is what made me love him from the first day.

So the next time we talk, I’ll mention the vitamins again. He’ll make excuses or vague promises. But he won’t get them. One thing I’ve always admired in Mtuseni is his stubbornness. He was always adamant that he would get out of the ‘hood and create a better life for himself. But that stubborn attitude can sometimes work against him. Whether he’s testing me again, or waiting for me to send vitamins across the world, or they just don’t fit into his razor-thin budget… I don’t know.

What I do know is that I miss those days when I told him to jump and he did so without question. And saw the benefits. I had the rare kid who listened. Now I have an adult who doesn’t. And the situation makes me want to get some Vitamin B12 for myself.

Mirror, Mirror

March 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

IMG_6220Wow, where did the time go? The past year was pocked with potholes and speed bumps — both in South Africa and at home. All of it was unexpected. But perhaps the biggest, and most unsettling, surprise was Mtuseni’s emotional downturn.

Last fall, he started saying that he was tired a lot. He said he was getting old. I chided him and insisted that 25-year-olds don’t get tired. At that age I had a full-time job and a grueling after-work gig swilling beer and smoking dope. And I was never tired. I’d kill for half of that energy now.

Then his fatigue expanded into chats tinged with sour, hopeless thoughts. He’d been unhappy in his job for some time, but it had turned to bitter resignation. He was now halfway through his 20s and he was still living with mom and the kids in the shack. Still counting pennies. Nowhere near what his expectations were when he was in college. He spent the Christmas Festive Season home alone, because he had no money to visit cousins at the shore in Durban. Instead he cleaned his room, tossing out clothes the rats had eaten. And he slept. Tired. Always tired.

Early on I was concerned that he might be sick. His home environment and diet are always wreaking havoc on his immune system. But eventually I recognized the problem. Mtuseni was depressed.

I called him more often — and made sure that I talked less and listened more. He’s always been a tough nut to crack, with a complex set of defenses. But they’ve softened over the years, at least with me. He trusts me. He would feel better after venting, and I gave him words of encouragement. But it didn’t change his circumstances.

He’s in an almost impossible situation. The dire economic statistics, lack of resources, logistical challenges, and other hurdles to success in South Africa have me stumped. After being Mtuseni’s “magician” for so long, my powers feel depleted.

It’s hard to hear my usually happy boy feeling so down. I realized that when your kid hurts, you hurt.

It seems weird that it took me all these years to recognize this. But from the first day we met, Mtuseni has always been a pretty happy, goofy, idealistic kid. Yeah, he’s had his moody, grumpy, sullen moments, but they didn’t last long. He’d always bounce back with that warm heart, determined optimism, and special sparkle that makes me adore him. I’d never experienced him being in emotional distress for so long, and I was surprised by how much it brought me down. Just as I mirror his joy, I also mirror his pain.

Huh. Another facet of the parent experience. Strange that I never saw that coming. And surprising how much his pain hurts me. But a few months ago this magician still managed to find a rabbit in his hat. We are waiting on what I hope will be very exciting news any day now. And I cannot wait to celebrate and share his joy! Fingers crossed…

 

 

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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