"Pay it forward"

One of the most difficult aspects of English for any newcomer is our seemingly endless variety of slang terms, idioms and collocations.  If a newcomer asks me one more time why we get “in the car” and “on the bus” I will scream. I don’t know why: it just is. As Canadians we seem to adopt new, more difficult and weird terms all the time.  “White out” will forever exist in Manitoba as “rabid Winnipeg Jets hockey fans wearing white to a hockey playoff game,” but when I was growing up, “white out” meant either a bad snowstorm or liquid paper, the bottle with the little brush that kids used to sniff seconds before passing out.  Some terms have nicer, but equally obtuse meaning. What does “pay it forward” mean? Buying a parking ticket from a machine in advance? Paying for gas before filling up? These are literal meanings, but the actual meaning is a little different. Let me explain.

Last week I was working at the University of Manitoba campus and when I came out to drive to my English class downtown, I saw I had a flat tire, not an underinflated tire, but a full flat.  I called CAA and was told it would be anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, but I couldn’t wait, I had students to teach. I decided to get on my hands and knees and change the tire myself, put on the little rump tire using that cheap little scissor jack that comes in most cars nowadays.

I was struggling, I couldn’t get the lug nuts loosened and I was near the curb so it was hard to spin the jack handle.  I was also consciously aware that I was wearing nice clothes, or at least what passes for nice clothes in my closet. 

“Excuse me… excuse me.”  I heard and looked to see a man walking towards me.  “Do you need a hand, sir?”

Being the manly man I purport to be I initially said “nah, I’m alright.”

“I think I can help.” He insisted and continued walking.

He quickly took control of the situation, lowered the car to remove the nuts then had it back up in minutes.  We started talking.

“My name is Eid,” he said, “I’m an international student from Saudi Arabia.”

“Thank you Eid,” I said, “I’m an English teacher and if I don’t get this tire changed I’ll be late for my class.”

“Your students wouldn’t want that,” he replied, smirking.

After twenty minutes Eid had my tire replaced and I thanked him for helping me.

 “You paid it forward.” I told him, and said that I now had to do something nice for somebody else.

“No problem,” he said, “we’re all here to help each other out.”

The magic of “paying it forward” means you don’t have to do something right away, only that you “owe” a good deed.

That night one of my students left her handbag in my class.  I chased after her but she was already gone. I didn’t know what to do, but I felt it was safer if the handbag was in my possession instead of someplace in the school. I rummaged through the handbag and found her driver’s licence with an address, which was out in St. Boniface in an area I’d never been before.  I decided to drop it off, but quickly realized I had no idea where this address was and my phone gasped for its final electrical breath. I stopped the car at a random house and ran up to someone’s door. Their light was on in the front foyer so I assumed they were up, but when I knocked, the woman in the house looked at me in horror.  Who comes knocking on the door at 10:00pm? I yelled through the door that I was looking for someone’s address in the area, so she opened the door and I explained the situation.

“Oh, you’re paying it forward.” she said.

“I guess I am,” I replied.

So in a day that went all wrong for me became a lesson in good deeds, with everyone paying it forward, me getting to class and my student getting her handbag returned.  What Eid said continued to resonate with me: “We’re all here to help each other out.” I wasn’t sure if he meant University students, people in Canada or if it was just a general comment about everyone in the world.  It didn’t matter. That is the basis of paying it forward so keep that in mind the next time you see someone on their hands and knees changing a tire.