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Nation & World

He Grew Up With An Unfortunate Name He Hated — Now He's Owning It

At a StoryCorps interview in New York City, Allan Fuks (right) tells his former middle school classmate Spencer Katzman what it was like to go through school with an awkward name.
At a StoryCorps interview in New York City, Allan Fuks (right) tells his former middle school classmate Spencer Katzman what it was like to go through school with an awkward name.

He pronounces his last name "fyooks." Still, Allan Fuks grew up with a last name that, on paper, looks like the mother of all curse words — and, naturally, offered endless material for bullies.

Fuks, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up all over the U.S. — New York City, Northern California — before finally landing in suburban New Jersey in middle school. But no matter where he went, the taunting followed.

In a recent StoryCorps interview, he tells his former classmate, Spencer Katzman, that, growing up in the 1980s, he was seldom called by his first name.

"I was either the F-word, 'Dumbo' — because I had huge ears — or a combination of the two," he says. "It was like I was walking around with an army of hecklers behind me, constantly."

Katzman remembers there was always a "baseline taunting" for Fuks. "I don't know that I had it in me to stick up for you at that age," he says.

"No one did," Fuks says, laughing. "What are you talking about? That's a kamikaze mission."

Fuks remembers at least one upside of his classmates laughing at his expense. "This country is so polarized, but kids of all demographics were united in making fun of the last name Fuks," he says. "That brought people together."

Allan Fuks, shown around age 13, poses outside his home in Fair Lawn, N.J.
/ Courtesy of Allan Fuks
/
Allan Fuks, shown around age 13, poses outside his home in Fair Lawn, N.J.

"Even the kids on the lowest social rung didn't want me sitting at their lunch table," he says. "So I would go to the library because I didn't want to sit alone, and I remember I read the entire Holocaust encyclopedia. I recognize now that's kind of dark. But I was just such a lonely kid."

When he was 12 years old, he'd call the Nintendo hotline, he recalls, "to have someone to talk to me."

"I remember trying to painfully segue from a conversation about video games into just like, 'So how's it going in your life?' And he's like, 'What?' That's basically my childhood," he says.

When he was about 16, Fuks' parents legally changed the family name to Finn. "They were like, 'You're pale, you could be Irish.' So they threw all these Irish names that started with F into a hat and picked out 'Finn,' " he says. "And then I went to school and I was like, 'Hey guys, I'm no longer the F-word. I'm Finn now.' "

"I didn't buy it for a second," Katzman says.

Fuks laughs. "No one bought it," he says.

He describes the name change as " too little, too late." It helped Fuks' younger sister, Stella, avoid being bullied, he says, but it "didn't stick" for him because kids at his high school already knew him as "Dumbo F****."

Carrying the weight of his name, Fuks says, "to a certain extent, it's shaped me. It's darkened my view of humanity, seeing the worst in people." Today, he channels this pessimism into humor. Though legally he's Allan Finn, he decided this past year to be Allan Fuks in his career as a stand-up comedian.

"I just got it into my head that I'm letting the bullies win," he says. "I remember reading about this philosophy of a broken vase that you glue back together and you show proudly because the glue is now part of the art," he says, referring to Japanese art of Kintsugi. "And I'm hoping to achieve something like that in my own life, and start gluing the pieces back."

Audio produced forMorning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.