Paying it Forward

By John Roemhild, North Central University (MN)

Not too long ago I went to a bookstore in my spare time. I took my time, as always, wandering through the shelves, simultaneously picking up and painfully putting back interesting books, knowing that I should probably finish at least one of the ten books I’ve started before buying another. As I took a seat in the café, which was relatively empty and quiet, I noticed a folded slip of legal pad paper hidden under the little cardboard advertising stand. …Curious.

I looked around as I unfolded it. “A gift for whoever finds this first. I hope it brings a smile to your face today. Remember – pay it forward. Have a great day! ” Tucked neatly in the crease there lay a crisp ten dollar bill and a $20 Subway gift card. I waited nervously for someone to shout “Hey that’s mine!” or “Where’d you get that, skinny boy??” or (I realize this is nonsense) “Let’s get him!” But there was nothing. A sip of coffee, a ruffling newspaper, nothing.

I kind of felt guilty for being the first person to find it. Why me? I understand that the intention of the giver was obviously to bless someone who didn’t necessarily deserve it, but I couldn’t help speculating the possibility of it being a trap; soon Ashton Kutcher would pop out from behind a chair, snag the money, and slap me in the face. Or perhaps it was fate instead. Maybe the ghost in Pay it Forward destined the gift to be given to a writer who would publish the story online. Whatever benevolent spirits I encountered that day, I decided to just take it for what it was: an unusual gift from a kind stranger on a lucky day, and I relaxed and read my book.

Not even a week later I found myself at a stop sign near a scruffy guy with a cardboard sign that read “HOMELESS-ANYTHING HELPS.” Sometimes when this happens to me I avoid eye contact. And when I say sometimes, I mean every time, unless I’ve just found a five in my pocket and I am the first car in the lane closest to him and he’s holding a crying newborn. I know. I’m pretty good with excuses for someone supposedly representing Christ. This time was no different before my conscience chimed in. “What do you mean turning back would be unreasonably out of your way? What the hell, bro?” it said, because I sometimes say “bro” when I’m disappointed in myself. Days ago I was handed thirty dollars in money and credit for no reason at all and here I was trying to convince myself I couldn’t give it up again, as if I ever needed it in the first place. This guy needed it way more than I did, and, holy crap, I suck at being generous.

There was the revelation, right on cue. The whole “pay it forward” thing is still struggling to survive, but people like me just stomp it out when it comes our way. I, much like the rest of the inhabitants of our nation, think about money a bit too much. On my worst days, I shake my fist at the rich and pray for generosity, only to turn my cheek and snuff it out when I’m on top – all because of the imaginary weight of a pixelized bank account balance on Wells Fargo’s website. It’s a number. I lack nothing that I need to survive and be happy.

I turned the car around. I had no cash, but I gave him what change I had and the gift card, pointing him to the nearest Subway (very conveniently located just a block away). He gave a slightly bewildered smile and kindly thanked me, and I drove off honestly feeling happier than when I found the crap in the first place. If I accept generosity and forget about it, it dies. If I give it away, it keeps going. Either way, it’s no one’s decision but my own. If I want the weight of that stupid, tiny bank account number off my back, I need to kick its butt and give away something I “can’t afford.” Managing to do so even in a small way feels backwards and oh-so-right. It’s easy to forget that on top of the ability to keep generosity alive, I also have the ability to make it out of thin air. I think I’m going to go grab a box of Kleenex and rent Pay it Forward now.

If you’re curious about how rich you actually are, check out and find out where your wealth ranks in the world’s population.

John Roemhild is a columnist at The New Student Union. Reach him at



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


2 thoughts on “Paying it Forward

  1. “If I accept generosity and forget about it, it dies. If I give it away, it keeps going.” … couldn’t agree more!!! A pretty cool grassroots initiative that you might find interesting in the spirit of Paying it Forward – A group of students (i believe) from Michigan State University are behind this effort. I’m looking at doing something similar in our town, just 60 miles north of Lansing – Mt. Pleasant, MI. In fact, meeting with a local radio station this afternoon to pitch idea to partner in launching such an effort.

    Great way to “keep it going” — eh??
    Kathy Backus
    Publisher –

    Posted by kathy backus | June 16, 2011, 10:32 am
    • I had no idea these sorts of things were going on – thanks for showing me! I hope the meeting with the station went well. That’s great to hear.

      Posted by johnroemhild | July 4, 2011, 9:28 am

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