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September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni turns 21 today. He claims to not get excited about birthdays, always brushing off talk of them in the past. Raising three kids in poverty, his mom doesn’t tend to do much for holidays. He had been typically chill about it the past month or so. But seeing his WhatsApp status line this morning, I was glad to see the flash of humor and ego from my sometimes over-serious and insecure kid:

bday whatsapp status

In South African culture — or at least in Mtuseni’s Zulu culture — turning 21 is a milestone and rite of passage. As he explained to me back when his brother Moses reached that age, the family holds a big party to celebrate becoming a man. Mtuseni’s party is in a couple of weeks; his mother invited me when I talked to her in July while he was here. I wish there was a magic carpet that could carry me there in an hour so I could help celebrate; I’m not jumping on a plane for 16 hours for a birthday party. But Mtuseni is getting excited; his Facebook invite claims the bash will run from 8 pm to 7 am — and asks people to “bring beer, but no weapons.” I hope mom knows about the power of Facebook party invites!

mtuseni photo-walletOn my end, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since I had my first webcam chat with Mtuseni — shortly after he had turned 17 and was finishing his junior year in high school. We were both nervous — and I sort of botched it with a stiff PowerPoint showing him my home state (a suggestion in the mentor training). Still, it was my first interaction with the boy I knew only from a two-sentence description and photo provided by the nonprofit that matched us. I was captivated by that sweet smile on a kid half a world away wearing a school uniform… and wondered how this mentoring thing would all play out.

And although it truly seems like yesterday, I can’t believe it was three years ago that we “shared” a birthday cupcake on a web chat and I played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for him. His face lit up as he bounced to the music in his honor, knowing he would go home to no celebration. He was finishing high school and prepping for the month-long matric exams that would determine the next phase of his life. And I was beginning to think about offering to pay his tuition if by chance his exam scores qualified him for college. I can remember that half-hour birthday chat so clearly — neither of us could have imagined then the roller coaster ride that was to come.

Moses is gone now, and Mtuseni is the man of the family. He’s weeks away from finishing his last semester of school and ready to pound the Johannesburg pavement in search of an internship so he can graduate next June. When he was here, Mtuseni said that wearing a tie for his US visa interview (at my insistence) had inspired him to create a new look. “No more t-shirts,” he told me. “No more kid stuff.” So we passed by the tables of hip tees that I usually send to him and looked at chinos and button-down Oxfords and dressy shoes. We came home and he tried everything on, reveling in his own personal fashion show and sartorial upgrade. It was cool to see the transformation and his enthusiasm, though I will admit to some mixed emotions.

IMG_0298Despite his not-so-subtle hints the past few weeks, Mtuseni knows there’s no birthday present from me this year. The $250 to replace his third phone in June was his early gift, not to mention a trip to the US and a new duffle bag full of new clothes to take back. But I never let his birthday go unnoticed. Because sending mail to South Africa can be problematic — and I’m holding off until a Christmas package — I scanned and emailed a couple of birthday cards, telling him how proud I am of him — and how much I love him.

And as I’ve told Mtuseni many times before, no matter how old he is, deep down he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy” from the picture that started this remarkable journey for both of us. And he’s fine with that — even if he is a man now.


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My first image of Mtuseni came from a photo supplied by the organization that matched us for mentoring. He’s sporting a yellow public school uniform shirt, clutching a bookbag and wearing the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen. He says he was 16 when it was taken, shortly before we met. He looks so young in it, more like middle-school age.

I can get teary-eyed when I look at that photo, pinned over my desk. Little did I know what an incredible personal journey would unfold for both of us when I was first captivated by that smile. In some ways, he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy.”

But in a few short years the boy has quickly become a man — albeit with the typical knuckle-headedness of a male approaching 20.

The behavioral changes I expect. If they weren’t happening, I wouldn’t be doing my job. But what surprises us both is a recent growth spurt. He’s always been about low-average height, at least by American standards. But recently, he’s grown a couple inches. Last month I had to buy him new pants because his were too short and he felt embarrassed at school.

Teen-in-Lucky-brand-shirtWhen I saw Mtuseni in January, I teased him about the 14 whiskers on his chin, which he would absently twist when focused on something, like a crusty old professor or budding philosopher. He also had the soft shadow of a mustache then — so I was shocked four months later to see in photos how dark it’s become. He doesn’t like the mustache, and I told him it might be time to buy a razor. His first shave should take about 25 seconds.

I don’t know where this sudden growth is coming from. I thought boys finished developing by age 16. Maybe it’s spurred by exposure to a more dynamic world and greater responsibilities at school. Maybe it’s my pestering him to eat better and take the vitamins I bought. Or maybe it’s simply genetics.

Of course, mustache aside, Mtuseni is proud of his growth. He told me the other day that one of his best friends is now “too short.” (Ahh, the competitive posturing of males.) And I’m impressed too. Maybe it’s the dad in me talking, but he’s become a handsome young man — who not only has more physical stature, but as he says can “stand tall.”

From Day One, kids want to grow up. That’s their job, and Mtuseni is no different. Unlike most parents, I didn’t have the bittersweet privilege of watching a child transform all-too-quickly from first steps to first driver’s license. Still, the change from my little yellow polo shirt boy to confident young man has been amazing to watch… and far too fast.

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With a Capital P

April 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

A while back Mtuseni sent me a quick chat message with an attached photo that said, “Buddy, yesterday I got my first polo shirt!” I thought to myself “What do you mean? I sent you some polo shirts last spring. What’s the big deal?”

Then I opened the picture. He wasn’t talking about generic pull-over, golf-type shirts with a button V-neck. He got his first Polo shirt… with the little man on the horse embroidered on the chest. We’re talking Polo with a capital P!

teen-in-Polo-shirt, South-AfricaSouth African postal restrictions limit how much I can send to Mtuseni. And when I buy clothes for him, I’m trying to balance style and volume. I want him to be able to compete with his school peers on the fashion scale, but he also just needs a lot of stuff. I’ve found some pretty cool threads, and with the Southern Hemisphere on opposite seasons from the US, I clean up at clearance sales here. If I saw a cheap Ralph Lauren at Marshall’s, I’d get it for him. But they’re not that cheap, and I can buy him three cool tops or a jacket for the same price.

For any teen, clothing and brands are important. For my mother it was poodle skirts. For me it was Levi’s — but all I ever got were Wranglers or Toughskins. (I’m still scarred!) But for a kid from very poor circumstances going to college in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, those labels have extra value. That first Polo shirt he got was a hand-me-down, but he loved it.

When I went to visit him in January, I brought along my classic Ralph Lauren cream canvas jacket with the embroidered horseman. I don’t wear it often, but figured it might be good for cool summer nights. And I knew it wouldn’t be coming back with me.

I only wore it one windy night in Capetown, and in the carnival-cafe atmosphere of Long Street, Mtuseni didn’t take much notice. So packing up before my flight back home, I told him I rarely wore the jacket and he could have it if he liked. He gave it that noncommittal teen once-over, then noticed the Polo man. His eyes lit up. “Oh! I didn’t see that before! That’s nice!” And it was his.

So the jacket brings Mtuseni’s Polo count up to two. It’s fall there now. He tells me he’s worn it, and it looks good and so it “must be filled with integrity.” Can’t ask for more from a canvas jacket!

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