He's a soft-spoken, studious type; happily married like me, by all indications. He and his wife work in the field of Sports Medicine. That night his rimless eyeglasses highlighted the platinum streaks in his hair, a few more than I remembered. And his face drew me in again because even at rest, his lips form into the shape of a smile. He's the kind of guy that is interesting to engage in conversation; he is well-informed and is an attentive listener.
"Doing great," I said in response to his question about my son who had suffered a hairline fracture in his right foot in February. "After six months off, he is back strong, and having fun. I've lost count of how many goals he has scored this season," I added with a smile. "And his sixth grade gifted program is challenging but he is working hard at it."
"Well Nehemiah is killing soccer but he is doing terribly at home and at school," he began. "He is in eighth grade now and he has picked the wrong friends. His behavior is terrible, he is rude and mean to his brother and sister, I don't like the way he talks to me, to his mother."
"Really?" I responded in a barely audible voice, realizing too late that I had picked the wrong word. Because Really? does not always communicate empathy. It can intensify the negative in a message, and I did not want to appear flabbergasted with the news (even though I was). So I tried to make up for it by tearing my eyes away from his smiling lips and fixing them squarely on his eyes; leaving no doubt as to my thoughts of compassion.
"Over the last few weeks, his grades in Math and Science have continued to deteriorate, we can't seem to get him to sit down and finish his projects..."
"Oh, dear," was the most I could muster as a follow up, a bit surprised that he was confiding in me. Because where I come from, when your child misbehaves, you confide in your innermost circle of family and friends. Embarrassment to the family name is taboo. In addition, our forms of intervention would be considered illegal in this country, I guarantee you.
Somebody I know spent some time in jail for 'disciplining' his American-born teenage son (who called the cops on him). Upon his release, however, he bought a one-way ticket to Nigeria for the kid, where he underwent further discipline. The young man is now a thankful college graduate and a multimillion dollar NFL player.
"Well, this past Monday, Coach Mike called Nehemiah one evening and spoke to him at length. The next day he got 100 in his Math and Science quizzes." The soccer dad continued, the contortion in his face, now more of a grimace than a smile. "But I would much rather his behavior improve than his grades," he admitted. And the arms crossed over his chest left no room for comfort.
In my estimation his heartfelt sharing reflected the depths of his despair. I was sorry for him and his family.
"We've told him he cannot play in the first game of the tournament this weekend, we've taken away his cell phone. This is absolutely last resort type stuff for us!"
"Oh, I see." And then I went off on a tangent (some may think).
"There is this thing we call Utu in Kiswahili," I began my sermon. "It is the sense of knowing Who you are, Where you come from and What is expected of you. My parents taught me, and over the past twenty-five years, I have striven to teach our American born children to have Utu."
Utu is the embodiment of you. It captures where you come from, where your parents come from, your intangible source of strength. The God in you. Your Chi (in Ibo).Utu, in its various cultural representations, is nurtured within the African extended family. Where every relative has a stake in the growth and development of your child. Where older siblings and cousins, pass the family heritage baton to the younger ones. And when a family is battered with an unusually troublesome child, the elders are always there to intervene, with love and compassion. They rid American-born Africans of the 'entitlement' nonsense they've imbibed in the West. They provide them with the tools necessary to become successful in life.
He looked at me, nodding his head as if he got the message to its core. Then he told me about a book his mother had sent him, called 'Raising Teenagers,' he said, "such a wonderful book, she got a copy for my brother too, who is having trouble with his only son, a teenager as well."
In retrospect, I wonder whether my ultimate message was tangential, irrelevant? I don't think so..what do you think?