Foreign Exchange


He dresses weird, he talks funny, and he’s a Mormon—just what I need in my life right now.

Foreign Exchange

I looked down at my dinner of meatloaf and potatoes feeling smug in my new freedom. My older brother, Rodney, left for college the day before, and that meant I didn’t have to share a room with anyone. Tim, my younger brother, 12, noisy and messy, wanted to move in. But I complained so loudly, Mom and Dad agreed that a 17-year-old high school senior needed some space. I did too.

I needed to get myself mentally ready for basketball season and figure out the truth about why Jennifer Parks dumped me last month. I was in no mood for anyone to be in my space. In fact, right after dinner I planned to rearrange the bedroom to my liking.

Then Dad walked in and joined Mom, my ten-year-old sister Sharla, Tim, and me at the kitchen table. He sat down and said, “I have an announcement to make.”

Dad’s announcement, I knew, wasn’t nearly as important as basketball or Jennifer Parks, which I alternately contemplated. I didn’t pay much attention until he said, “And he will be sharing a room with you, Matt.”

Startled, I looked up. “What?” I said. “Who’s going to be sharing my room with me?”

I listened in disbelief. Dad said a 16-year-old boy, a Slovakian, was coming to live with us for a month. Dad’s club was sponsoring a foreign exchange student, and no one else in the club could take the boy right now. Dad said that with Rodney gone we had some extra room. I felt as if I had just been told a Martian was invading.

A half hour later the doorbell rang, and Sharla answered it. At Dad’s insistence, we all stood in the living room to give him an official greeting.

A skinny kid about my height entered wearing shorts and knee-knocker socks with a flight bag flung over his shoulder. His nose looked as if a small pyramid had been cut diagonally in half and stuck on his face. His bottom lip stuck out past his small upper lip and his ears were unusually small. Black curly hair topped his head like a bowl of worms. His shorts were plaid and his shirt striped.

Our intruder smiled, flashing gleaming white teeth, dropped his flight bag, and shook Dad’s hand like he was trying to pop a whip.

“Thank you, Mr. Darrin, for kindness.”

He grabbed Mom’s hand before she could hide it, pumped it hard and said, “I am sorry, Mrs. Darrin, the stay with other family has, how you say, fallen over, but I am glad I here come.”

It was clear his English needed some help as well as his looks. Waiting for him to arrive after dinner, I had decided that it might be okay to hang around with a dashing, sophisticated European for a month, even if it meant sharing my room. This guy, however, was neither dashing nor sophisticated. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that this might be the beginning of the longest month of my life.

When he reached me, I asked him to pronounce his name, Svetozarevo. I tried several times to make it sound right, but finally asked if I could call him “Stevo.”

He grinned and said, “Oh, Stevo. That good nickelname for me.” Sharla rolled her eyes.

I led him upstairs to my room, and with heartbreak showed him where he could unpack, then pointed to his bed. He made himself at home and we got ready for bed.

As I got in bed he said, “Matt, do you pray?”

“You mean at church?”

“No. Before sleep and in the morning.” From under his large nose, his teeth gleamed across the room at me.

This was too much. I had a religious fanatic sharing a room with me for the next month!

When I didn’t answer, he said, “I am a Mormon and that is my habit.”

I still didn’t answer.

“I pray in bathroom if it bother you,” he said.

It bothered me, but I decided that it was best not to get into a discussion about my religious beliefs. He might want to spend half the night trying to convert me. “No problem,” I said.

He knelt down by his bed and started whispering. I couldn’t hear what he said, but it probably didn’t matter. I figured that if he prayed in Slovakian, I wouldn’t know what he was saying, and if he tried it in English, I probably wouldn’t understand it either. He stayed on his knees for a long time. When he got up he said, “Matt? You still awake?”

“Yes.”

“What you do tomorrow?”

“Some friends and I are going to play basketball in the morning.”

“Oh good. You want I go with you? I like to be athlete too.”

I rolled over and sighed, “Good night, Stevo.” I said.

I’d guessed correctly. His basketball wasn’t much better than his taste in clothes. But he did play with a contagious enthusiasm. That’s the way Stevo did everything. When he helped Mom with the dishes you’d think he was having fun. When he did his laundry, which he insisted on doing himself, he whistled—off key of course. He always seemed to have that smile, too. It irked me that he was happy all the time. He’d made fast friends with Mom, Dad, Sharla, and Tim. The kids at school, especially the girls, liked him too. I couldn’t understand it.

One of the important things for Stevo in coming to the United States was to have a chance to attend his church. Each Sunday I’d drive him to his meetings. He told me that many years ago his father had worked in Switzerland for a while. During his stay, his dad met some LDS missionaries. He read a book called the Book of Mormon and had been converted to the Church. Stevo called it The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “nickelnamed” the Mormons.

Three hours after dropping him off I’d pick him up. He always had a group of young kids around him as I pulled into the parking lot. He seemed to like everyone, including me. Even after the rotten trick I pulled on him.

I played “the trick” the evening before school started. The principal, Mr. Sajack, telephoned and asked Stevo to have a short talk ready for the opening assembly. Stevo went to my room and prepared it. Later he read it to me and asked what I thought. I told him that in this part of America we had a special pronunciation for the name of his country and the natives of his land. He took notes.

The next day in the assembly he introduced himself, told them his “nickelname” and then said, “I come from the Sloback Republic and my people are known as Slobs.” Half the auditorium teetered in embarrassment and the other half rolled in the aisles. He just smiled as if it was okay and continued to talk.

Later that day in English class Mrs. Cartwright asked him who helped him with the pronunciation of the name of his country. Then she glanced over at me. Stevo asked, “Why?” When she told him what a “slob” was I thought he would really be mad. All he did, though, was run a hand through that black hair, grin, and say “That was funny joke, heh?”

One night, three weeks after his arrival, I asked him if he had a girlfriend back home. I was curious—and maybe a little jealous. He was quite homely, yet after only three weeks he knew more people at Edgemont High than I did after three years; it seemed like a crowd of girls followed him wherever he went.

Smiling, he said, “No. No one especial, but I have many friends that are girls. The leader of my church, the prophet, once say not to go steady until ready to marry. I pray every night for the Lord to prepare a girl for me to marry after my mission, a girl I can take to the temple.”

Mission? Temple? It sounded like another foreign language. He had me interested, though, so I asked more. His explanation of a mission seemed ludicrous. It was insane for 19-year-old boys to swear off girls, college, and fun for two years to go to some faraway place to share religious beliefs with strangers. I was worried he was going to practice on me, but he just answered my questions.

Then I said, “Stevo, I’m sorry for the dirty trick I played on you when you asked for help on your opening assembly speech.”

“It was a dirty trick, true. But I don’t think you are dirty. I like you, Matt.”

The last week with Stevo in our house passed quickly. The Saturday morning it was time for him to leave you’d have thought someone died. Tim said he was losing his best friend, and Mom dabbed her eyes and said it felt just like when Rodney went away to college, even though he was going only a few miles to his next host family.

As I drove Stevo to his new home, I realized there was something I wanted to say to him. I had been a jerk. Selfish. My own little room, my kingdom, where I could shut the world out and indulge in self-pity, had been so important. So important I almost shut out something that on some level seemed more important than I knew how to explain. I glanced over at Stevo. His large nose pointed straight ahead, serene, knowing exactly where he was going as he continued his journey through life.

I made my decision. I pulled over to the curb and parked under the bough of a large chestnut tree.

“Something is wrong, Matt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I have a confession to make.” I took a deep breath. “I didn’t like you at all when you came to live with us. And the first time I saw you I didn’t know what I was going to do with you for the next month. You seemed like trouble and a bother. I didn’t even try to hide it. I’m sorry. I was wrong, and I’m going to miss you and our talks.”

“I will miss our talks too, Matt.”

“Stevo, you have something. People always seem to want to be around you. Why? What is your secret?”

“I don’t know any secret, Matt. All I know is from the time I was tiny my mother told me often that if I treated other people as important as I wanted to be treated, then things would always work out. When we found the Church and discovered Christ, it was easy to see that all children of God deserve to be loved.”

“Even people who are trying to kill you?” I asked.

“Them especially. Easy to love those who treat us nice, my father says. Best part is to love those who hate us. That doesn’t mean we try to put ourselves in a place where they can hurt us. We try to understand so we don’t hate them back.”

Then I said, “I wish I had something to remember you by, Stevo. When I am with you, you make me want to be better. I want to change.”

“Matt, can I give you a gift?”

“I guess so.”

Stevo reached into his flight bag and pulled out the Book of Mormon he read nearly every night. He opened it and wrote in it.

I took the book and read what it said. To my best American friend, Matt: To want to change is the first step to be better. This book makes me want change to every day. Perhaps it can do the same for you. Your friend, Stevo.

I set the book down on the seat, put the car in gear, and headed down the street. We drove in silence. When we arrived at our destination, Stevo’s new host family was out front waiting. I helped him with his bags and then did something I had never done before in my life. I gave a guy a hug. Stevo was out of my room, but I knew he would never be out of my life.

I keep Stevo’s book by my bed and read from it often. Mom and Dad wonder why I treat everyone around here better. I even invited Tim to move in with me.

What shocked everyone most, though, was one Sunday several weeks ago I told them I wanted to go to church with Stevo before he returned to his home. That was, however, only part of the truth. The place Stevo goes every Sunday has a spirit of change, and that’s what I want to do. When I grow up, I want to be like Stevo.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Greg Newbold