Jean Claude Ninganza

I originally wrote this in August 2011, right before Jean Claude started William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.  This Saturday he will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology.  Almost four years later, I didn’t know I could be any more proud of him.  But I am.

Four years ago this month, this skinny teenager entered my life. He was fifteen. And he only spoke Kirundi and French.

Even in this picture, he is noble.

I didn’t know then that he would be put in French class in 9th grade for multiple periods because the school wasn’t sure what to do with him. I didn’t know that I would be livid.

I didn’t know that I would go to his parent-teacher conferences and hear many a teacher remark on his pride and determination. That one time he would sit in on a meeting and hear an ESL teacher tell his mother that he wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t know that he would get up and walk out in anger.

Four years ago I had no clue that I would give countless rides to the soccer field. He would somehow catch me before I left the house and ask, “Are you going by Hollywood [Ave] on your way home?”

I would nervously leave him at the Binghampton soccer field alone before others trickled in for a pick-up game. I’d eye his cleats in hand, towel across his shoulders. No water bottle or cell phone in sight.

“Will you be okay?” I’d ask.

“Me? I’m good,” he always answered. And for some reason, I always believed him.

I didn’t know that this boy would mean a Kingsbury High School Football Schedule would be posted on my refrigerator in the Fall and a Soccer Schedule up in the Spring. That I would learn more about football and soccer simply because I wanted to understand what position he played. And that I would take a ridiculous amount of blurry photos trying to capture him on the field. I didn’t know that it would mean the world to me when he called to tell me his team won and he scored a goal.

I didn’t know he would use his summer job money to buy athletic shoes for his siblings and a used big screen TV that didn’t work. When he did get his own cell phone, I didn’t know I would save his text messages because they would be both kind and funny. When he talked about going to Brazil to play soccer, I didn’t know I would be encouraging. When he wanted to take his girlfriend to the Senior Prom, I didn’t know that I would loan him the money for the tickets.

Four years ago I didn’t know this boy would make me realize I knew absolutely nothing about teenage boys, except to take up for them when they’re misunderstood.  I didn’t know that I would be so sad when he made poor decisions and so delighted when he made good ones.

I didn’t know if he would graduate from high school, especially when he almost failed English. Four years ago I had no idea he would call and let me know he passed every Gateway graduation exam. I didn’t know that I would get to see him walk across the dias and receive his diploma—the first in his family to obtain a degree in the United States.

I didn’t know that I would be so nervous when he said he wanted to go to college and play Football. That I would be even more nervous when he said it was in Iowa. Or that I would sob when I thought he had to move there a week earlier than he really did.

Four years ago, I didn’t know that he would write my parents a thank you note and say I was like his sister. I didn’t know I would lie to him and say I did not read it before I mailed it to them.

I didn’t know that he would leave tomorrow for university. That his mother would be sad tonight and I would have to explain again that they will feed him and provide a place to wash his clothes. That she would ask if he should take rice to cook and keep saying, “This is the first time…far away…”

I didn’t know that I would tell him goodbye tonight. I didn’t know that he would walk me out to my car, like he had done every night I left his family’s home too late, and tell me:

“Pray for me every day, Meredith. I want to do good. I want to make my family proud and I want to make your family proud.”

Four years ago, I didn’t know that I would be so proud of him. I didn’t know he would be my brother.

Ninganza means “God is a Warrior” in Swahili.

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