When I was in high school, I remember staring up at the TV hoisted up in the corner of the classroom. The entire school was being made to watch a film called Pay It Forward. From what I remember, it was pretty hokey. It quickly became the inside joke to reference its melodrama.
I won’t lie and say I didn’t laugh along, but the idea of “paying it forward” lingered within me. It colored my actions in little ways. Years later, now serving as College Adviser at that very same high school, I can stand witness that the spirit of paying it forward marches on. I see it in my students every day.
When I ask them to tell me about themselves, they often share stories of personal suffering. Many of them have gone through things I couldn’t imagine. Their tales range in tone from matter-of-fact to darkly humorous to tearful. Yet, pity never plays a part. The students never give it time to form, because in the same breath they tell me their dreams.
I can clearly remember a moment with one of my “regulars” - a bright, charismatic young woman we’ll call “Farah.” She’s the type of person who inspires effortlessly, a star athlete near the top of her class. When she told me that she was applying early to Brown it was hard to hide my enthusiasm. Before long I formed a sort of kindred spirit with her. Maybe it was just extra fulfilling to see a young black woman like myself striving for excellence.
With deadlines looming, Farah wanted to perfect her essay. I encouraged her to talk it out. She could tell me her thoughts out loud and I’d transcribe them, my lightning fast typing skills coming in handy. This method was a great way to get ideas on paper, but it also gave me the opportunity to get to know students more deeply.
We soon got on the topic of her future. Farah dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, and in her essay she shared a story of visiting family in Senegal. Her voice took on a burst of passion as she mentioned passing by a clinic where impoverished children had to wait outside, hoping for treatment. She expressed disgust at the doctors she knew refused to care for the ill without being paid. I could only sit in awed silence as she went on, saying how she wanted to make sure that all children could be healthy, no matter their wealth. In that moment, I knew she had found her calling.
Despite being quite candid about how messed up the world is, my students are never so jaded that they give up on it. No matter what their particular aspirations are, they always want to help make things better. Even those just waiting to strike it rich mention looking after family and friends. An unspoken rule - it’s only right to lift yourself up if you bring others up with you.
If my students are so willing to give up what little they have to help others, so must I be. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, so it our job to form a foundation for those who will follow.