I wrote last month about the role Paul Tamburello, my former fourth grade teacher, mentor and friend, has played in my feeling seen as well as the joy I experienced from seeing four former students at the Uthongathi School.
Manqoba Ngubo was one of them.
A lean and lanky lad who hailed from Pietermaritzburg, he and I had the most contact of the four students with whom I reunited in Durban last month.
This was because he was both an English student and a member of the soccer team.
Intelligent, outspoken and a capable writer, Manqoba was a very easy and contributory member of the English class.
Soccer, on the other hand, was much more challenging.
Possessing fierce opinions and very strong willed, Manqoba and I had many conflicts during the year.
The topics ranged from his position to his desire to move forward to his impatience at the pace at which I was responding to his requests for change.
The interactions were not easy, and, toward the end of the year, I saw that we were starting to make some progress.
This signal came on a Friday afternoon.
Every Friday I would have the students wake up and have a silent practice from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Those students who slept in had to run laps around the soccer field.
On this particular day, Manqoba did not attend the practice. Yet, later in the day, I saw him running his laps without my having prompted him.
One of the many things Paul Tamburello taught me was how to evaluate impact.
This was definite evidence.
The story eventually had a happy ending.
Manqoba became a contributing and accepted member of the team who scored a dramatic goal in our final game.
We won nearly all of our games and went undefeated in our league, beating another undefeated squad 1-0 in a very hard fought and physical match.
I still remember the sound our team made at the end of the game.
After repelling attack after attack, the boys finally heard the ref blow the final whistle that meant we had preserved our slender lead and won the match.
It meant we were champions.
In one voice, all of the players grunted from deep within their guts, a sound of grim satisfaction at their hard-earned accomplishment.
After the season, I had a season-ending banquet in which I bought everyone bunny chows, a delicious Indian concoction in which mutton, beef or bean curry is ladled into a hollowed out bread loaf, I gave the players an opportunity to speak to each other and to me.
Manqoba grew emotional when he thanked all of the games on the team for what we had been able to accomplish. He said he had checked with Mr. Dlamini, a groundskeeper and one of the school’s original employees.
We had had the best record in school history.
He also told me that he knew we had had a lot of conflicts during the year, but that he hoped it had been worth it and that he had made me proud.
Then he cried.
To hear Manqoba explain that, despite all of our difficulties, what I had been trying to accomplish had reached across language and culture and race and gotten into him pushed firmly against my childhood feelings of not being seen.
The even more beautiful part was we got to see each other again last month.
Vukani pointed out that Manqoba, who does not have a car, had taken public transportation to see us. This means that he had boarded multiple buses over the course of about three hours to get from his hometown to Durban.
He looked terrific.
Physically, he was the same as he had ever been, with a bit more meat on his bones.
He’s maintained himself well, and looked trim and fit.
He also looked more relaxed.
When we were at Uthongathi, Manqoba always brewed with a simmering, smoldering intensity that looked as if it could erupt at any moment.
Now, his face and his whole being was suffused with a contentment I hadn’t seen before.
This is not to say that everything has gone swimmingly for Manqoba.
He’s had trouble finding full time work, and, at 34, lives in an apartment with his mother.
But he seemed undaunted and talked animatedly about his involvement with, and ascent in, Maritzburg-area activities of the African National Congress.
Mostly, though, we talked about soccer.
“That was the best year,” he kept repeating as we remembered and relived the games, the early morning training session, and team dynamics. “That was the fittest I have ever been.”
Some moments were rich in humor.
“Do you remember what you did the day after we lost?” he asked.
I hesitated, unable to instantly access that memory.
“You killed us!”
“Suicides, running up the hill, running to the front of the campus… and we couldn’t complain because you were doing it with us!”
With each detail we relived-there were many of them, that went down to the instep pass he made to Israel, our lightning quick and lethal scorer-Manqoba affirmed the importance of what we had shared and what lived within each of us.
I told Manqoba that I remembered what he had said during the final banquet, and how much his words and emotion had meant to me.
“I remember that, too,” he nodded.
Eventually, the evening wound down after more drinks and a stop at a jazz bar. Vukani and Manqoba drove me back to the hotel where I was staying.
Manqoba and I hugged each other goodbye, thanking each other for the time and pledging to keep in touch.
I tiptoed into my room on the second floor, using my cell phone to light a path to the toothpaste and then the bed.
But sleep did not come for a long time, and not just because we had stayed up late enjoying each other’s company.
When I had left South Africa buoyed by the gift of the time with Vukani’s friends who treated me like a brother, with Manqoba and the other students at Uthongathi, I had felt seen and understood in a way that I hadn’t had before.
But I had felt as if somehow that vision and comprehension depended on the place, was imbued in the very soil of South Africa.
This night, after spending time with Manqoba, whom I had not know if I would ever see again, and hearing that our relationship had mutual meaning, an internal tectonic plate shifted inside me.
I realized, in a visceral way that I had not experienced before, the source of the connection lay within me.
To have helped influence a young person is a gift once given.
To hear the student articulate that influence is that same gift twice rendered.
To learn a decade-and-a-half later that you and the student live within each other in deeply meaningful ways is beyond my powers of description.
Thank you, Vukani, for helping to make this happen.
And thank you, Manqoba, your generosity and enormous gift.