Transformed by My Three "Sons"

She never wanted kids. She even wrote an incendiary book about being childless by choice. But when three impoverished African teens wanted to go to college, she discovered she was a Mama Bear after all

By Elinor Burkett
The author with the three young Zimbabweans she helped attend college in the U.S. From left: Goodwell, Energy and Honest.
Photograph: Colby Katz

I hired a math tutor to prepare them for the mysteries of the SATs. Then, twice a week for five months, I picked them up from school and, after the mandatory snack, tutored them in En-glish and essay writing. (They laughed at the American “need to feed,” as they dubbed it, but happily learned to lick my cake-batter bowls clean.) By the time exam day arrived, they were strong and confident; I, of course, was a wreck.

We spent another five months combing through college catalogs. Big universities or small ones? Could they stand the cold of the Northeast?

Like good Zimbabweans, who seem to have a genetic ability to stand in line for hours without complaint, they were patient as we waited for news. A true New Yorker, I prodded the admissions committees to watch iThemba and listen to the boys’ music.

In April 2011, we celebrated their admission to a range of schools suited to their individual interests. Then the panic set in: Goodwell and Energy received less scholarship money than they needed. The boys asked us for nothing, their pride overwhelming their pain. I looked at my husband, Dennis, who simply nodded his head.

“We’ll sort out the money,” I told them. “Just get ready to leave.”

I persuaded Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education to ask the presidents of the universities for more scholarship money. When Dennis and I returned to New York, where we spend half of each year, I begged not only my friends for contributions but also my local bank, supermarket, area churches, even the garden club. I set up a fund-raising website. I showed my film to pull at heartstrings and sent letters of appeal to every foundation, every rich person, I could find. And I tapped our savings—the gift of a lifetime of childlessness—knowing that I’d have to do it all again the next year, and the next year, and the one after that.

The three arrived in America with one small suitcase apiece. By the time they left my house in the Catskills three weeks later, they had each gained weight, had received repeated lectures about condom use and were staggering under a load of down jackets, boots, irons, bedspreads, towels, dishes, cups and laptops, thanks to the generosity of our friends.

We sent Honest off first, to the University of Kansas, and I fretted about how he’d manage his plane connection in Washington. Energy was next; if all went according to plan, a new electric wheelchair that I’d persuaded a California group to donate would be waiting when he arrived at Lynn University, in Florida. Dennis and I personally delivered Goodwell to Nazareth College, in Rochester, New York, and as we drove away, the immensity of what we, and they, had done crashed down on us. Yes, we worried. We had to. That was part of our new job. We also wept, with joy.

The boys didn’t e-mail, text or call in alarm, because they adapted beautifully. Energy can’t stop smiling as wheelchair-ready ramps lead to doors that open automatically. Goodwell loves his chemistry and calculus classes and laughs at the attempts of the school’s percussion ensemble to master the Shona songs he’s been teaching them. Honest giggles about the “funny gods” he learned about in Greek and Roman mythology; he’s also learned to shout himself hoarse as a proud Kansas Jayhawk.

And me? I’ve traveled, in a compressed period, at an unusually late stage in life, the parental arc from making everything happen to letting it be, from being needed in an urgent and imminent fashion to simply being on standby. As countless moms and dads out there know, it’s a strange transition.

I suspect my three “sons” will remain in my life long past their college years. I didn’t give birth to them, but in a sense I did bring them into the world—the world they now inhabit—and I’m as stuck with them as they are with me. Some might say I’ve finally become a parent. I would just say I’ve been given a gift.

To help Energy, Honest and Goodwell with their college expenses, click here.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue

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