At the end of last year, all of Red Rock High gave Istvan “Fisty” Nagy a standing ovation during an annual celebration of our All Right Alternative Students. This esteemed group includes foreign exchangers, teen mothers, and kids completing their GEDS or coursework after having been away (juvenile detention, runaways, year abroad, beauty school, deportation). Each year, we host more than our fair share of foreign friends, and they are always add valuable spice to our school community broth. Fisty, however, was exceptional even among such high caliber alterna-kids. He not only brought his Hungarian culture to our school (mostly in his lunch), he also brought a fierce intellect, intense work ethic, and wide sense of humor with him as well. I have no doubt that Fisty could be a successful international student at any American college or university (with the proper support of course). In addition, he will add a unique perspective and sense of Hungary to the community as well.
When Fisty first landed in my American Literature course, I wasn’t sure where he was in terms of his oral and written English. In order to determine his fluency and help connect him with the other juniors, I developed an “Istvan Minute” where he would speak uninterrupted in English on topics I assigned to him. Some of these topics included complicated processes like cooking or abstract ideas like friendship or love for pets you keep in cages. On that first day, I called on him using his given name, Istvan. He immediately looked around and all his new American peers (mostly male) nodded, urging him to say something. Then the oddest thing happened, Istavan made a fist and swung it from side to side in front of his chest, reminiscent of the Popeye cartoons I watched as a child in rural New Jersey. “I Fisty,” he said and smiled hesitantly. The class erupted. Then he loosened his fist and rubbed his ample stomach with his palm. “I hungry.” The class exploded with glee. Turns out that Fisty had already been introduced to this cast of wacky characters at some social gathering held by Louis, his host brother. I was amazed that Fisty showed no hesitation in speaking English freely to a bunch of teenagers. He uttered those same two sentences every day for the first quarter, sometimes combining them: “I’m a hungry Fisty” and each day he slayed his peers once again. What a jubilant way to start English class! After the first quarter was under his Cub Scout-style belt, he sought out translations and nuances in language from all of us. I was unfamiliar with some of the phrases like “dirty Sanchez” and “frosty mustache” but other sentences about the town of Red Rock showed me that Fisty was fitting in hand in glove.
Fisty found a variety of ways to fit in, in fact. I’m sad to say that reading and writing weren’t two of them, yet what can we expect when we accept these kids who know almost no English? I petitioned the admin over ten years ago to train us in ESL (now called something else like TOENAL?) but they balked, saying they had no budget for so few students who didn’t have to take standardized tests. I smelled racism but had no proof. Whatever happened to the melting pot? Sadly, these foreign kids like Fisty suffer. I try to establish a positive environment for our friends from far off lands by creating innovative programs like the “Fisty Minute” or the “Cameroon Confession Cam” but other teachers just pretend these kids don’t exist or make fun of their funny accents, bad haircuts, or lunches smelling of bait fish and road cabbage. Don’t they realize that FEZ are people too?
In my class, I made darn sure to notice when Fisty started growing a mustache as requested by Louis and his pals. It was in honor of something called Beardtober and since Fisty was the only one who could grow facial hair, he became kind of a hero with his Fu Manchu. Then he cut his bangs really short and started changing his dress. In the first few weeks, he donned attire like the American teens: jeans, designer tees, skater sneakers. Other than his strong accent, poor command of English, and somewhat antiquated mannerisms (think: a frantic actor in a silent movie), you could say that Fisty almost looked American. But in November, after his sideburns and Fu Manchu grew in fully, he started wearing a lot of polyester. Shiny white tops, flared black pants, and blue dress shoes with a ropy metal buckle. Add a few gold chains and some strong leathery cologne and there was Fisty toward the end of the first semester.
Since he couldn’t write about his metamorphosis, I asked him to hang back one day after class and chill with me. Sitting across from him, mano-a-mano, the changes since that first day were striking. So was the scent of cologne and cigarettes. I knew I needed to phrase my question both simply and delicately so I asked, “Why did you change your clothes?”
He shrugged like a weary soldier. “New day. New Clothes.”
“No, no, no,” I said. Using a combination of hand gestures and short fragmented sentences, I pantomimed what he wore the first week of school and how he transformed. I may have sketched a few crude drawings on the board, but I can’t be sure. I do that sometimes.
He went on a bit of a rant that included something like “Girls Saint Victim and Paul, Louis never been kissed, she’s all that.” Then he sighed and looked toward the door. “I go Chem, please?”
I had to ask around but the gist of
it was that Fisty was pretty intent on dating while he was in the US (driving
too, but it’s against his program’s rules) so he asked Louis and his buddies
for advice. They told him that there were plenty of American dudes around. The
more exotic (I think they meant ethnic) Fisty became, the more girls would be
interested. A few of the girls got into the act and offered advice via high
school makeover films like Never Been
Kissed and She’s All That, both
I’m unfamiliar with. The boys took him to St Vincent de Paul thrift store which
carries a lot of senior citizen castoffs since it’s close to the Elder Shelter
Retirement and Nursing Home. This explains all the polyester. According to
Louis, the cologne came from there as well. A half bottle of something called
Cumming by the actor Alan Cumming. I had no idea. I wish my talent could be
moved from lyric poetry to screenwriting because this story has all the makings
of a Hollywood blockbuster (Don’t steal my idea now!). Fisty’s fierce
determination and hard work after being coached by his peers is like Footloose (one of my faves) meets those
makeover shows on TV (which I’ve only just heard about). I think if Fisty can
transform like this, think of what he can do for your college or university. As
you might expect, I gave Fisty a well-earned P+ for his efforts in my course.
You should too!
It is my great honor to write this letter in support of this most qualified candidate
Viszontlatasra (I think this means goodbye),
Richard Fulton Winter
1998 Arizona Junior Humanities Excellence in Teaching Award—Honorable Mention
Class Sponsor of the Alternate Student Council
Author of The Bard’s Gentle Graces (poetry chapbook)