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“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 in.

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 about.

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 astray.

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 sameness.

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 third.

"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 right.

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 her priorities.

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 you've got.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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