Pay It Forward?

When a Davis High School teacher gave his students $25 apiece and asked them to help others with the money, he expected them to follow through.

When most of them didn't, he was disappointed, and so were many area teens.

Earlier this summer, Davis teacher Michael Johnson wrote for The Bee about an assignment he had given his two human-relations classes during the school year. In his editorial and online letters, Johnson described how he gave each of his 64 students $25 of his own money and asked them to "pay it forward," using the cash to help someone else.

He explained that the assignment was not graded; in fact, he made it a point not to remind his students about it. He hoped that they would be intrinsically motivated to do something good for others.

Johnson had only one requirement: write a paper answering how the student used the money (without naming the recipient), how it affected the receiver, and how it affected the student. He explained that he would collect the reports and read them aloud at the end of the term without revealing names.

"It wasn't meant to be an experiment," Johnson later said. "I fully expected them to do it."

The semester came and went, and of the 64 students, only three completed the assignment. Johnson was shocked.

Some area teenagers, however, were not.

"I'm not surprised," said Ashley Reeves, a 16-year-old freshman at California State University, Stanislaus. "It wasn't graded or anything, so most students probably thought it would just take up their time."

Ashley said that if she had been given the money, she might have acted the same way.

"Even I might have simply spent the money on myself," she said. "It's only human ... it's natural for our own needs to come first."

Other teens took a different perspective on the issue.

Lindsey Freeland, a junior at Davis High School, shared her outlook on the matter in a letter to the Opinions section of The Modesto Bee.

"I'm embarrassed by the outcome of Michael Johnson's experiment," she wrote. "If I were given this opportunity, I would have taken it as a challenge and used the money to help the community. I wouldn't do it for an 'A,' or because I feared a detention, but because Johnson entrusted his money to me with the assumption that I wouldn't act like a child in a candy store."

Nieshia Smith, one of the three Davis High students who completed Johnson's "pay it forward" assignment, admitted she was surprised by the result.

"I actually thought more people would participate," she said.

Nieshia, who donated her $25 to the Make a Wish Foundation, was saddened by her peers' lack of action but maintained that the assignment was not a failure.

"It was a good thing Mr. Johnson did," she said.

Josslyn Zuidervain and Ana Miceli, Johnson's two other students who completed the assignment, said they were likewise let down by their peers.

"I was very disappointed that only three of us actually did the assignment," Ana said. "Teenagers sit down and watch television for hours, but they can't spend a couple minutes helping someone else!"

The two Davis High graduates gave not only their $25 to the project, but their time and energy as well. By combining their money to buy car-wash supplies and enlisting the help of members from their church youth group, Josslyn and Ana were able to raise around $200 for local area support groups for families with special-needs children.

Beyer High School junior Sarah Whiteside saw the result of the experiment as a sign of the times. "I think that it is a sad reflection on the youth today," she said.

While Sarah found the outcome disappointing, she remained optimistic.

"I bet that some of the kids really did give the money away but just forgot about the paper," she said.

Darin Chiesa, a junior at Ripon Christian High School, couldn't understand the lack of action on the part of the students.

"If I were given the $25, I would totally go to In-N-Out and pay for the food of the car behind me," he said.

The result of Johnson's "pay it forward" assignment was disappointing to adults and teenagers alike. But while the assignment didn't turn out as anticipated, it cannot be called a failure.

The teacher's act has had a far-reaching impact, maybe even farther than it would have if the experiment had gone as intended. As the Davis teacher said himself, "The reward has come in the conversations that have resulted."

Michelle Vecchio is a senior at Whitmore Charter High School in Modesto and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program.