Archives For maturity

Mtu1Last week Mtuseni was chatting with me about City Year and how much he was enjoying it — and I told him how happy that made me. Then he shifted gears and said “But part of me gets nervous.” When I asked why, he said he was worried about diverging from his radio career path by joining the program. I assured him that the door to radio hasn’t been locked shut forever, and that City Year will give him new skills and a broader network for whatever his career might be. I told him to just ride this raft down the river, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience. He agreed that he would, and seemed to feel better.

Later, I thought about his simple statement to me… “I get nervous.” I could never have said that to my father, or to my mother, at his age or at any age. Growing up in my family, any expression of vulnerability was brushed off, squelched, or criticized. Not that my parents were trying to somehow toughen us up, but just that they couldn’t be bothered. So as a short, chubby, brainy, fey, shy boy, I learned to stuff all my fears, hurts, and insecurities inside. It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I was finally able to let all those dark feelings out in a therapist’s office. But for years, they weighed me down like Jacob Marley’s chains.

I’ve watched Mtuseni grow so much. We’ve had many open, heartfelt talks over the years about his fears and worries, stemming from personal self-doubts to feeling “less than” living in a shack settlement. He’s made enormous strides in terms of confidence; I don’t hear much of the nervous boy I first met. Even though he’s brimming with young 20-something bravado these days, I’m glad that he trusts me enough to share his vulnerabilities. Just being able to express them — and have them validated — can make them float away. I wish I’d had that option at his age.

As always, I feel profoundly blessed that I can share Mtuseni’s moments of success — and his moments of weakness. It reminds us both that not only are we men trying to forge a path through life, we’re merely human. And that’s okay.

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Magic Year(s)

September 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

NewburyportLast week I was reading a blog I wrote for a university as an MBA student. The first two posts were written weeks before I met Mtuseni; it was a weird glimpse into my life just before everything changed. My focus then was finally getting a master’s degree — and I was also gonna do this mentoring thing with some kid in South Africa. That seemed like an interesting and noble diversion at the time.

The MBA adventure lasted one semester … not my cup of tea on many levels. And five years later, that “South African kid” is the center of my world.

And he was a kid… barely 17 when we first met. Mtuseni turns 22 today! I can’t believe it. When we talked about his birthday last weekend, Mtuseni said he was getting old. Much as I’d give anything to be 22 again (without today’s twerking, texting, and monotonous hip-hop), he’s right. He’s much older now. He was naive, sheltered, and insecure when we first met… and the guidance and opportunities I’ve provided have helped him to grow and mature in many ways. (Though like any male his age Mtuseni can qualify for a Mr. Knucklehead crown on most days!)

But he is different from five years ago. I’m different. And our relationship is changing. His visit to the US in June made that clear… and we’ve had a bumpy summer of adjustments. For me it’s about letting go, allowing him to sink or swim. For Mtuseni it’s about stepping up and stretching himself even farther, as he takes his college diploma into a dismal South African job market. Two months after graduation, he’s already surprised and frustrated at “how long it’s taking.” Welcome to the real world, son!

But as I told Mtuseni, double-digit birthdays only come around every eleven years — so being 22 is a magic year. I think good things are ahead — for him and for me (although my double-digit birthday comes next fall). Mtuseni’s next adventure may be with a South African chapter of City Year, the US community service program. We met the program’s vice-president at the headquarters here in Boston. Mtuseni was impressed, and he recently met with a program manager in Johannesburg. Applications are due next month. I think he’ll benefit from the leadership training, and will enjoy tutoring kids in the public schools — because he’s always wanted to inspire young people and help make a better future for his country. Could I ask for a better kid young man?

Looking back to that earnest, shy, squeaky-voiced shack boy I met on glitchy video chat way back when, I’d say these past five years have been pretty magic, too!

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December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.

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brain-keyAlmost every parent of a teenage boy has watched their son make a bone-headed move and wondered, “What the hell was he thinking?”

I’ve experienced this often in my years with Mtuseni. Like the time he sat on his laptop and broke the screen, barely two months after I bought it for him. Or the time he went to the Boston Media House freshman dance at Monte Casino with no plans for a ride home — and sure enough spent the night sleeping in some bushes before hitch hiking home at 5 am. Or when we discuss in detail a specific complex task, and then he does the complete opposite.

Trying to guide Mtuseni through the roadblocks of poverty and headwinds of South African culture from 8,000 miles away is difficult enough. His twisted thought process and knucklehead decisions just make it harder. Over and over I’ve wondered how a kid who can be so smart can also be such an idiot. Where is his brain?

And I’ve learned that, indeed, his brain is part of the problem. Last year I wrote hundreds of exam questions for a child development textbook, and was struck by a chapter on physical development of the adolescent brain. Although on the outside a kid in his late teens appears to be fully grown, his brain’s frontal lobe — the part that governs logical thinking — is not fully connected to the rest of his brain. So even if Mtuseni’s frontal lobe thinks, “Don’t put your laptop on a chair; you might sit on it and break it” — before that simple logic can be fully processed and executed, he’s already sat on the laptop, and the damage has been done. Literally.

After reading that and thinking, “Aha!”, I went to the magic Google machine to learn more — and found this interesting story on NPR: The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet. (Click to listen to the story.)

While it’s good to have some perspective on what drives Mtuseni’s thinking, it doesn’t make my job any easier. I still need to repeat myself when explaining things to him. And I’ve learned to expect that he’ll only do about 75 percent of what I ask, plus a small percentage that is the exact opposite of what we discussed. When I get frustrated and lose my temper with him, I try to remember that his foggy thinking is a physical, biochemical thing: The neurons are moving along a rutted dirt road, not a smooth superhighway. He’s doing the best he can with what he’s got.

…And yet, Mtuseni is beyond late adolescence; he’s 21 now. And while being out of his teens doesn’t necessarily mean his brain should automatically be firing on all cylinders, in theory it should be improving. But I’ve learned there are other factors that affect his thoughts and actions, which I will discuss in Part 2 and Part 3 of “What Was He Thinking?!”

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