Pay It Forward

By Catherine Ryan Hyde

In “Pay It Forward,” Catherine Ryan Hyde explores the idea of what this world would be like if instead of people paying back debt, everyone paid it forward using a 12-year-old boy as the instigator.

Trevor McKinney and his mother, Arlene, live in the small California town where Reuben St. Clair transfers to teach. St. Clair, a scarred, bitter man, ends up in front of Trevor’s classroom and challenges the students to change the world. As an extra credit assignment, students who choose to participate are to design a project to help others, follow through with the project and then present it to the class.

Trevor designs a project to help three others in a big way with the catch that they each pay the debt forward to three others. If everyone followed through and helped three others, pretty soon, a multitude of people would be helped. Though Trevor thought his project was a total failure, he was unaware that it had really spread throughout the country. A reporter caught wind of what was being called a “movement” and tracked down Trevor.

The book is well-written, hopping between believable characters in believable circumstances. It is a wonderful depiction of how passing on acts of kindness can change the world without us even knowing or understanding the final result.

Though the story was inspired by a true event in Hyde’s life, it is a work of fiction. The concept of paying it forward was a key plot element in a play writing by Dyskolos in ancient Athens; was described by BenFranklin in a letter to Benjamin Webb in 1784; was in Ralph Waldo Emerson essay in 1841 and was espoused in Lloyd C. Doublass’s 1929 novel, “Magnificent Obsession.” The term “pay it forward” was popularized by Robert Heilein in his 1951 book, “Between Planets.”

A Pay It Forward Foundation was started in 2000. There also is an organization, called Students Today Leaders Forever, that was started at the University of Minnesota in 2003. It had its first Pay It Forward Tour, a multi-day volunteer trip focused on service, education and reflection, in 2004, and has done 240 tours since. There are now student-led chapters on 30 different college campuses.

Personally, I really enjoyed reading the book, and contemplating the idea. I have always lived by the philosophy “be kind to everyone. You never know how your act of kindness may affect someone.”


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