“Pay It Forward”
By Catherine Ryan Hyde
For Younger Children
Maybe someday I'll have kids of my own. I hope
so. If I do, they'll probably ask what part I played in the
movement that changed the world. And because I'm not the person
I once was, I'll tell them the truth. My part was nothing. I did
nothing. I was just the guy in the corner taking notes.
My name is Chris Chandler and I'm an investigative reporter. Or
at least I was. Until I found out that actions have
consequences, and not everything is under my control. Until I
found out that I couldn't change the world at all, but a
seemingly ordinary twelve-year-old boy could change the world
completely--for the better, and forever--working with nothing
but his own altruism, one good idea, and a couple of years. And
a big sacrifice. And a splash of publicity. That's where I came
I can tell you how it all started. It started with a teacher who
moved to Atascadero, California to teach social studies to
junior high school students. A teacher nobody knew very well,
because they couldn't get past his face. Because it was hard to
look at his face.
It started with a boy who didn't seem all that remarkable on the
outside, but who could see past his teacher's face. It started
with an assignment that the teacher had given out a hundred
times before, with no startling results. But that assignment in
the hands of that boy caused a seed to be planted, and after
that nothing in the world would ever be the same. Nor would
anybody want it to be. And I can tell you what it became. In
fact, I'll tell you a story that will help you understand how
big it grew.
About a week ago my car stalled in the middle of a busy
intersection, and it wouldn't start again no matter how many
times I tried. I'd been expecting this. It was an old car. It
was as good as gone.
A man came up behind me, a stranger.
"Let's get it off to the side of the road," he said. "Here. I'll
help you push." When we got it--and ourselves--to safety he
handed me the keys to his car. A nice silver Acura, barely two
years old. "You can have mine," he said. "We'll trade."
He didn't give me the car as a loan. He gave it to me as a gift.
He took my address, so he could send me the title. And he did
send the title; it just arrived today.
"A great deal of generosity has come into my life lately," the
note said, "so I felt I should take your old car and use it as a
trade-in. I can well afford something new, so why not give as
good as I've received?"
That's what the world has become. No, actually it's more. It's
become even more. It's not just the kind of world in which a
total stranger will give me his car as a gift. It's become the
kind of world in which the day I received that gift was not
dramatically different from all other days. Such generosity has
become the way of things. It's become commonplace.
So, this much I understand well enough to relate: It started as
an extra credit assignment for a social studies class and turned
into a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cold, no one is
without a job or a ride or a loan.
Reuben St. Clair was the teacher who started it all. He was
closer to Trevor than anybody except maybe Trevor's mother,
Arlene. So, after the fact, when it was my job to write books
about the movement, I asked Reuben two important questions.
"What was it about Trevor that made him different?" I asked.
Reuben thought carefully and then said, "The thing about Trevor
was that he was just like everybody else, except for the part of
him that wasn't."
Then I asked, "When you first handed out that now-famous
assignment, did you think that one of your students would
actually change the world?"
And Reuben replied, "No, I thought they all would. But perhaps
in smaller ways.".
So now that you know how big it got in the long run, let's go
back to an earlier part of the story. Trevor is helping Mrs.
Greenberg, his neighbor, because she has arthritis and there are
things she can't do for herself:
She was right near the end of his paper route, which he changed
around just a little, so her house would be very last. He'd
leave his big, heavy old bicycle on its side on her lawn, and
bring the paper right to her door and knock, knowing as he did
that it was a bother for her to go out after it. She was so
pleased by his thoughtful attention that she always offered him
a glass of cherry Kool-Aid, which she bought specially for him,
and he'd sit at her kitchen table and talk to her. About school
mostly, and football, and then a special project he had thought
up for his Social Studies class, and how he needed more people
he could help, and she said she had some gardening to be done,
though she couldn't afford to pay much.
He said she wasn't to pay anything at all to him, and what she
paid to others needn't be money, unless that was what she had
plenty of. And then he drew some circles for her on a piece of
paper, with her name in one, and told her about Paying Forward.
He said it started with something his dad had told him. He even
took out his calculator to help him explain.
"He said if you were going to work for somebody for thirty days,
and you had a choice: you could take a hundred dollars a day, or
you could take a dollar the first day, and then it would be
doubled every day. I said I'd take a hundred dollars a day. But
he said I'd lose out. So I worked it out on my calculator. A
hundred dollars a day for thirty days is three thousand dollars.
But if you double that dollar every day, you'd make over five
hundred million on your last day. Not to mention everything
between. That's how I thought of my idea for Mr. St. Clair's
class. You see, I do something real good for three people. And
then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to
Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get
helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven." He turned on
the calculator, punched in a few numbers. "Then it sort of
spreads out, see. To eighty-one. Then two hundred forty-three.
Then seven hundred twenty-nine. Then two thousand, one hundred
eighty-seven. See how big it gets?"
"It's like random acts of kindness," she'd said, but he
disagreed. It was not random, not at all, and therein lay its
beauty, built right into the sweet organization of the deal.
It was a foggy Saturday morning when he came by, six o'clock
sharp as promised, and they stood in the mist in the front yard,
the blue-gray paint peeling from her worried little house, and
the smell of damp air, and little drips from the oak trees
overhead cool in her hair.
He touched the roses as if they were puppies with their eyes
still closed, or rare old books edged in gold leaf, and she knew
he'd love her garden and it would love him back. And that
something was being returned to her which had been away too
long, and had kept too much of her away with it.
"How is the project going so far?" she said, because she could
see it was important to him, a subject he liked to talk a lot
His brow furrowed, and he said, "Not so good, Mrs. Greenberg.
Not so good." He said, "Do you think that maybe people won't
really Pay It Forward? That maybe they'll just say they will, or
even sort of mean to, but maybe something'll go wrong, or maybe
they'll just never get around to it?"
She knew it was a genuine problem in his mind, one of those
Santa Claus crossroads of childhood that shape or destroy a
person's faith forever more, and this boy was too good to turn
So she said, "I can only in truth speak for myself, Trevor, and
say that I really will get around to it, and take it every bit
as seriously as I know you do."
She could still remember his smile.
He worked so hard that day, and wouldn't even stop for a
Kool-Aid break but once, and when he finished she tried to slip
a five dollar bill in his hand, above and beyond and in no way
connected to Paying It Forward, but he wouldn't hear of it.
He worked all weekend, and four after-school and
after-paper-route days on the garden, and said next week he
would come around and paint her fence and window boxes and porch
railing with two fresh coats of white.
Mrs. Greenberg walked to the grocery store, slowly, loosening
her tight joints and muscles as they warmed to the strain.
It was late dusk on The Camino, with the car headlights glowing
spooky in the half-light as she pulled her little two-wheeled
wire cart behind her over the sidewalk cracks. Mrs. Greenberg
always took the same route to the same store, being comforted by
Terri was working as a checker that evening, and Matt as a
bagger, two of her favorite people in the world. No more than
twenty, either one of them, but quick with a smile for an older
woman, no condescension, always thinking to ask about her day,
her arthritis, and still listening when she gave the answer.
She bought twelve cans of cat food and a five-pound bag of dry
cat chow, for the strays who counted on her, and cherry Kool-Aid
for the boy, and Richard's favorite brand of beer, and tea and
skinless chicken breasts and bran cereal for herself.
All the while thinking Terri and Matt, that's two, who probably
could be counted on to pass it along, and maybe that nice lady
at the North County Animal Shelter for Cats would make a fitting
"Good evening, Mrs. Greenberg," Terri said, running the
groceries across the scanner. "I drove by your house today. The
garden looks wonderful."
It pleased her in an uplifting way, like a dance with a
good-looking boy in high school, that someone besides herself
should notice and care.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she said. "Trevor McKinney did all that.
Such a good boy. Do you know him?"
Terri didn't imagine that she did, but it obviously pleased her
to see Mrs. Greenberg so beaming, and Matt, too, who mirrored
back her own smile as he bagged her cat food.
He had one of those modern hair styles, Matt, a handsome boy
with hair shaved high up onto his scalp, and longer on top, but
always clean, with a fresh look to say I'm modern, not a punk.
"Nice to see you so happy tonight, Mrs. Greenberg." And he
loaded her little cart carefully, so it would balance just
It would be nice to see Matt happy, too, though by design she
would not be around to see it. Young people needed a little nest
egg, for college maybe, though it would not be enough for
tuition, maybe books and clothes, or whatever they might choose
to spend it for, because she felt they could both be trusted.
And that nice lady at the cat shelter, she would put it right
back into spaying and neutering and other vet costs. No doubting
Yes, she thought, back out in the crisp, clean-smelling night.
It's right. She'd make the calls first thing in the morning.
So now maybe it seems like a little thing like that couldn't add
up to changing the world, but you'd be surprised. At first
Trevor thought it wasn't working at all, but things were
happening out there, things he couldn't see. People were paying
it forward whether he knew it or not. And soon Pay It Forward
became a movement that surprised even Trevor.
The most important thing I can add from my own observations is
this: Knowing it started from unremarkable circumstances should
be a comfort to us all. Because it proves that you don't need
much to change the entire world for the better. You can start
with the most ordinary ingredients. You can start with the world
Copyright (c) 1999 by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Reprinted by
permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.