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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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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.




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Doctor Dad

October 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

sickSince taking on the surrogate father role with Mtuseni, I’ve had to wear many hats: coach, cheerleader, task master, advocate, therapist, researcher, consoler, educator, employment agent — the list keeps growing. But I never expected to be his personal epidemiologist.

Since I’ve known him, Mtuseni has often been sick. Fever, flu, cold sores, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, congestion. Since I brought him some multivitamins last year — and continue to keep him stocked — he’s had far fewer bouts of cold and flu. But I’ll still get anguished reports of periodic stomach problems from him, told in his drama-queen style. (He can be a big baby when sick.) But some people (thankfully not me) are more prone to stomach bugs so I didn’t give it much thought, just waited for “I’m weak and dying” texts to switch to “I’m fine now.”

But when Mtuseni was here in Boston this summer, a small incident opened a new perspective for me on his tummy troubles. One night after supper he cleaned up the kitchen while I did some work. I came in later to put a few things back in their usual spot, and noticed the leftover rotisserie chicken wasn’t in the fridge. I looked in the cabinets and the trash but couldn’t find it. When I asked Mtuseni, he said “I put it in the oven” and, sure enough, there was the unwrapped bird sitting in the microwave. I chuckled incredulously and told him that stuff like this needs to go in the refrigerator. He was watching TV and only half-listened.

But this got me thinking… Is this how Mtuseni would normally store leftover food at home? The image of cooked meat sitting on a shelf overnight in his stifling shack haunted me.

So this past Monday he is “super sick” with cramps and vomiting. I ask if anyone else in school or the community is sick and he says only him and mom. With symptoms isolated to just the family, it sounds like food poisoning to me — and I think about the unwrapped roasted chicken. And then I think about the lack of running water. And handling raw meat. And mom’s pen of goats in the yard. And the outhouses. And the barely cool glass of Coke mom served me from their gas-powered refrigerator.

When I first asked Mtuseni to look for vitamins and explained how beneficial they are, he asked, “What are these magic pills?” If he didn’t know about vitamins (despite taking science and life skills classes in his public high school) then safe food handling practices were certainly not familiar to him. I quickly gathered some info and tips online — trying to tamp down my worry after reading about the effects of salmonella and E. coli —  and sent them to Mtuseni. He said he’d look at them and do the best he could, but the fridge is too “weak” to keep things cold in the heat (and it’s barely spring there now). I just hope this is one time he fully listens to my advice and acts on it; I’m more aware now of the risks. Perhaps food-related illness is part of the reason why some people in the community “just get sick and die” — some families don’t have any refrigeration.

Some people who hear about my experience with Mtuseni don’t fully grasp the level of stress I carry sometimes. I’ll hear “Oh, my teenager is the same way: never listens.” But their kid doesn’t struggle to sleep in a cinder block hotbox on a summer night, or have no escape from the cold when temps dip into the 30s. They’re not ruining their eyes studying for exams by candle light or tarring their lungs with the smoke from kerosene lanterns. And they’re not going to spend three days weak and vomiting from a plate of leftover pap and stew.

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The Great Pivot

September 30, 2013 — Leave a comment

In about six weeks Mtuseni will be taking final exams for his final semester of classes. Aside from doing a 100-hour internship, the hard work is done. Thinking back to how much he struggled — and how unhappy he was — in his first semester, it’s amazing how far he’s come. Not only does he have more knowledge, he’s more confident, outgoing and independent. Mtuseni doesn’t need the daily handholding I provided in our first few years. As a friend recently said, that means I did my job.

It took me a little while to mourn the loss of that constant connection, a virtual version of empty nest syndrome. But then it dawned on me that now I have time to focus on my life. I put it on the back burner to parent a kid living in a slow-motion culture 8,000 miles away — and it looks and feels a little ragged, though I have zero regrets.

But as Mtuseni turns toward new directions in his life, I now pivot back to my own. He posted a picture on WhatsApp this weekend from his big 21st birthday bash. In it he’s wearing a casual button-down shirt that I sent him last year. It’s a beautiful shirt, and I debated for days about keeping it for myself — before finally relenting and tossing it into his care package of clothes and cookies. I still want that shirt!

Meanwhile, every day, in every season, I open my closet and bureau and am bored stiff by my own wardrobe, which has not seen one new item since Mtuseni started school — and the South African bills started piling up. I can never claim deprivation compared to the way Mtuseni and his family live. But still, a little self-care does a body and soul good. And now that Mtuseni is on cruise control, the see-saw can use a bit of rebalancing.

I stopped marking my birthday a few years ago. Passing the half-century mark was a bit of a mind-fuck, so I smashed the odometer and don’t think about the numbers anymore. Still, growing up and living in New England, I’ve always felt lucky to have an October birthday. It falls just when peak foliage arrives in Boston — as if the world sets off fireworks in my honor. So to bring some equilibrium back to my Libran scales, I’ve decided that this October will be “31 Days of Me”…

Perhaps I’ll buy myself a nice shirt one day. Visit a museum that’s been on my must-see list for years. Have a drink at one of the city’s priciest restaurants. Cook something daring from my mountain of exotic recipes. Take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Skype with an old friend. Or maybe just take five deep breaths in a row. The details aren’t important, and every day doesn’t need to be a mind-blowing indulgence. But for once in a long time — maybe ever — this month will be all about me. It will make me a happier, calmer, better person — and a better dad.

Because this doesn’t mean letting up on the gas with Mtuseni. He already knows that October for him will be the month of drafting responses to a pile of interview questions and doing mock sessions. And I’ve learned from early missteps that we need to talk through the rationale and hidden agendas behind every sample question from his list before he answers them. Per usual, he’s balked at this activity for the more than a year, despite my nagging, but the preparation he did for the visa interview showed him what can be achieved if you do your homework. But as the two of us discuss why “fun” might not be the best single word to describe himself on the Y-FM internship application, I’ll be making sure that I inject more fun into my own life. Because to borrow from an old commercial: “I’m worth it.”

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