2016-10-01 / Family Matters

Pay It Forward

David Rockower

It goes something like this: We are visiting our favorite bookstore in Rehoboth, Delaware, when I say, “Hey Nathan, check out these bookmarks.”

“Cool! Oh, Dad, there’s one with a squirrel,” Nathan grabs the bookmark and hugs it to his chest before placing it back on the rack. A teenage boy witnesses this and looks at me with eyebrows raised.

“My son is a bit obsessed with squirrels,” I say. “They are his favorite animal.”
“Ah,” says the kid and moves on.

After a few more minutes of perusing the store, we head outside. The same teenage boy approaches me.

“Here you go,” he says, holding out the squirrel bookmark.

“Oh, we didn’t buy that,” I say, assuming he thought I’d purchased it and left it inside.

“I bought it for your son,” he says. His arm is still extended, offering up the bookmark. I’m slightly taken aback, and my face is twisted with confusion. Despite my appearance, it’s starting to sink in — this kid is just being kind, really kind.

“Why did you do that?” I ask.
“Because every once in a while, it’s good to do something nice for a complete stranger.”

I smile and shake his hand. He turns to Nathan and shakes his hand. Nathan stares at me, holding the bookmark like it’s a firecracker that might go off at any moment. I can see the confusion in his face, the wheels spinning: Never take anything from a stranger, but my parents are with me, and they just shook the kid’s hand. Is it okay to accept this?

I tell Nathan it’s fine, the kid was just being selfless — delivering a random act of kindness.
“That was really nice,” says Nathan. “I mean, I thought the bookmark was cool, but I wasn’t dying for it or anything.”

I explain that that wasn’t the point. I tell him, ”It was simply someone sensing your excitement and recognizing that he had an opportunity to make you smile — maybe make your day.” We walk home and talk about the concept of paying it forward. Nathan has seen the commercials where one act of kindness leads to another, and so on.

“Maybe I should give this to some other kid. That would be nice, right?”
“Yeah, but this was meant for you. If you want to do something nice for someone else, just be on the lookout for a person in need.”

About two blocks later, Nathan says, “This is starting to stress me out. I want to do something nice now.”

This is so like Nathan; when faced with a task, he wants to take care of it immediately. I try to explain that he’s in no way required to do anything in return, but he’s already decided that this is a necessity.
It’s been a few days since he received the bookmark. Though he hasn’t paid it forward yet, he is still mentioning possibilities. And he doesn’t seem as stressed out about it. Hopefully, he’s excited about all the ways he might brighten someone else’s day. Such a simple act really has the power to help us see the world in a positive light.

For me, the most surprising thing about the experience was that the do-gooder was a teenager. Had a grandparent done the same thing for Nathan, I would have been far less shocked. What does that say about me? About our expectations of youth? When that kid handed me the bookmark, I was slow to react.

What was I really thinking at that moment? That he was making fun of Nathan for being so excited over a bookmark? Playing some kind of prank? But his genuine kindness and the confident way he explained, “Because every once in a while, it’s good to do something nice for a complete stranger,” moved me. So often, we assume the worst with children and teens — that they constantly need to be shaped, molded and reminded, while we adults lead the way with our wisdom. Obviously, we have a lot to learn from them as well. Kindness knows no age.

I have noticed, by the way, that after a summer of very little reading, Nathan has been logging a lot more pages lately. And that little squirrel is holding his page. •SCM

With a sports-obsessed 12-year-old son, a spirited 10-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, teacher David Rockower has a lot to write about.

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