You can never pay someone back. You can only pay it forward.

charlie card“Excuse me, do you know where I can get a Charlie card?”

By the expression of the face staring back at me, I’d say I wasn’t the first lost, white girl to ask this question.

The man looked at the sky as if to say, Why do they always ask me? and reached into his pocket. He pulled out the small, green piece of plastic, and held it out to me.

“You mean I can keep it!?!”

Yet again, another pained expression. He finally gave me a shrug, followed by, “I had an extra.”

Which was a bit of a shock to me, because this man didn’t appear to have extra of anything.

I had been in Boston for weeks, at the tail end of one of the worst winters in history. With no car and no Charlie card (the access card to the subway system) my own two feet had been my number one mode of transportation. And those two feet were sick of being soaked.

I called my mom and told her the story (some twenty-somethings call their parents when they get a raise, I call them when I figure out public transportation). Her response was the same sentence that’s been shoved down my throat since I was five: Pay it forward.

When I graduated high school, I threw the standard graduation party and received the standard influx of cards, checks, and gifts. I promise I wrote thank-you cards, but I cannot tell you which gift lined up with which gift-giver.

—Except one.

The day after my party, I was going through each card one-by-one. My mom was at work. I was resisting the urge to throw a pile of twenty-dollar bills in the air and roll around Vegas-style on the carpet.

I opened a random card and pulled out the check. Fifty bucks? Score. Except didn’t the number 50 have one less zero in it?

I scanned the second line of the check, just to be sure. Who the hell gave me five hundred dollars?

Knowing I was faced with a question Google could not answer, I did the only rational thing: I called my mom.

Who, halfway through my story, burst into tears.

“Mom why are you crying!?!”

“Be-Because it’s just so nice!”

Well no sh#* mom, I was the one holding the $500 check.

Here’s the confusing thing about this story: The recipient was not a grandparent, aunt, uncle, mentor—there was no blood relation whatsoever. He was a good family friend, but in no way, shape, or form should he be sending me a three-digit gift.

So my mom filled me in.

Back in the ‘80s, in the heart of the Ag Crisis, my dad was on summer break from Iowa State University. He was back working on the same farm he’d worked on since age 14. The owners of that farm have no blood relation to my dad, but I consider them my grandparents.

Landowners around the country were going broke, and a local farmer approached my dad with an offer to sell his farm. My dad gave a sideways glance at his mentor—my fill-in grandfather—who said, “If you want to start, I’ll help you.”

That was the beginning of the farm I grew up on. A high-risk, high-reward opportunity presented itself to my dad, who took it. Had my dad said no, he would have missed out on extreme levels of land appreciation. Yet, whenever my dad tells the story, it begins with, “I never planned on dropping out of college, but…”

The person who signed the $500 check was almost a decade older than I. Upon his high school graduation, he was torn on whether he would continue school in the fall. When my dad found out, he sent a one thousand dollar check to help with tuition.

I have no idea what happened between that man’s graduation and my own, and frankly I never cared to ask. I’m assuming he tried to pay back my dad. Clearly it didn’t work.

“So when Zeke graduated high school, he wrote him a check for $500. And now you’ve received the other half,” finished my mom.

Damnit. Now I felt like crying.

My dad needed an extra push to launch a farm in the midst of an ag crisis. Our family friend needed an extra push to attend college in an age of rising tuition costs. My dad will never get the opportunity to repay my Grandpa for his mentorship. [The man is retired. What’s my dad going to do—give him farmland he won’t be able to use?] But he can pass it on to someone else. 

Here’s what I can, and cannot do:

  • I’ll never be able to repay the stranger with the Charlie card.

—I can help the lost tourist walking down the streets of DC.

  • I’ll never get to repay Zeke for the rides to school, the underage drinks, or for answering his phone when I just need to talk to my big brother.

—I can try to offer the same support to younger teammates and underclassmen.

  • I’ll never be able to repay the amazing bosses/managers I had when I was just starting my career.

—I can offer the same mentoring (and patience) once shown to me.

F is for paying it Forward.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

For All the F Words
You have flaws. You f-up on a daily basis. And that should be ok.