What Can Ten Dollars Do?

Last June, during graduation, the high school’s school board member spoke to the students, encouraged them to do something good for the world.

As she stood at the podium, she challenged the students to think beyond themselves, to see themselves as part of a global community, to show compassion to others.

And as an example of what she meant, the school board member instructed the students and faculty members to look at the chairs in front of them, to see if a sealed envelope was taped to the chairs.

Because I read the names, I am on stage.  I was ineligible from seeing the contents of the mysterious envelope.  With absolutely piqued curiosity, I watched as roughly ten people peeled the envelopes off the chairs; the envelopes were gently torn open.

And the school board member explained to the remaining audience members that each envelop held ten dollars and a business card.  She explained that everyone was invited to “pay it forward,” to pass the money on to someone else, to give the money to a worthy cause.

The ten people who received the money were invited to stand.  My friend, Kyle, was among the recipients.  I know that I scanned the audience to see if I recognized others.  I know that I did, but my memory of the time had crumbled so much that I had forgotten about the gift.

Until today.

A former student and her friend (also a graduate of the high school) came back to school today, visited teachers, spoke to the juniors about how to prepare for college and the future world.  I hugged my student and we talked.  She told me about writing a paper for class, about six hour long art classes during which she had to stand for the entire duration . She told me about how she feels like a number and not a person.

I smiled in sympathy, patted her knee, and tried to show her that I cared about her.  I empathized with the feeling of being lost within a crowd and seeking a place where I belong, where I am more than just an identification number that will eventually earn a grade.

We moved from talking about college life to remembering the time when her class had a three-hour long pancake-learning session, when we discussed literature while eating pancakes.  We talked about playing “Train Wreck,” about nicknames, about joyful times of laughter.  We talked about a classroom dynamic and community that I still miss.

And then, my former student said that she found something in her car, that she had something she wanted to give me.

She pulled out an envelope that was still sealed.  Tacky, old tape was still stuck to the top and bottom of the envelope.  I opened the envelope, not understanding why she was giving me something an envelope that was the county’s public stationary but was also clearly empty.

And then, she mentioned the speech and I remembered watching her stand, feeling that flush of pride because my student  had been given the money.  My student was a winner.  It was an absurd sense of pride.  But I still felt it and I won’t deny it.

I opened the envelope, saw the bill lying in its pristine length in the envelope.  Lifted the bill out of the way and saw the business card.

The school board member’s name.

The words Pay it Forward.

Years ago, when the movie Pay it Forward first came out, I read the novel and loved it.  I loved the idea of how a simple act can have such a powerful momentum, this tsunami of compassion.  As opposed to judging, I can dig in my pocket and pull out….money?  coins?  A handshake?  A smile that is nothing more than an expression of I see you and we share this planet together.  And together we can make a great impact.

I encourage my students to think beyond themselves, to see the other people who surround them and are there as their brothers and sisters, or at least as their global companions.

I have done the Pay it Forward thing.  I have given something to a random person and when they thank me, I ask them to “pay it forward.”  I am giving something to that person because I no longer have a need for it, but it might benefit them.

“Pat it forward.”

The school board member talked about the sacrifices the teachers, administrators, and staff made so that the students would have the ability to walk across the stage and into their futures.  The school board member talked about the sacrifices the parents, grandparents, or other assorted guardians made so that the students might know the power of success.  And she talked about how this gift is something that could be continually pushed forward until, finally, the world is nothing more than a collection of people giving and receiving, not giving and taking.

And today, I received a ten dollar bill and a business card and the words, “Pay it forward.”

Today, I received a hug from loved students who reminded me that the integrity of their souls has nothing to do with grades and has nothing to do with standardized testing but has everything to do with seeing them first as people and clients last.

Today, several former students came into my classroom and I wanted to stop everything and just hug them and remind them of how much I love them and how much they mean to me.  But my current students sat in a clustered half-circle facing us and the impetus to turn back and teach them was so over-powering that I couldn’t keep on facing my former students.

So I had to hug them and tell them, “Love you.  Mean it.”  Because I do love them and I do mean it.  No matter how simplistic those words are, the meaning is so much more powerful, so very real.

Today, I was given something that is very meaningful.  And tomorrow, I am going to “Pay it forward.”

I am going to go to the school’s accountant’s office and give her the money.  I am going to ask her to deposit it into the scholarship fund that was recently named in honor of a colleague who died over the summer from cancer.

My late-colleague, my late-friend, was–no–is…because her memory is always present in the hallways…a woman of compassion, a woman of nobel sacrifice.  She gave everything to her students without thought.  When she was undergoing treatment after treatment, her only thoughts were to get back to the classroom so that she could guide her students towards success.  So many of my students bear the influence of this incredible woman, so it is truly appropriate that a scholarship was named for her.

She truly paid it forward.  And tomorrow, I am going to do the same.

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