Pay It Forward: Summary, Quotes & Meaning

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  • 0:04 Where It All Begins
  • 1:03 What Does Paying It…
  • 1:32 How Does It Work?
  • 3:36 In the Background
  • 4:40 What's the Point?
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

If given the opportunity, would you try to change the world? Find out more about one boy's idea in this lesson's summary of the 2000 film 'Pay It Forward,' including some quotes from the movie and what it means to 'pay it forward.'

Where It All Begins

We tend to think only something huge could change the world, but sometimes all it takes is a small act of kindness to make a big impression. This is exactly what happens in the 2000 movie Pay it Forward.

On the surface, Trevor McKinney seems a lot like other 7th grade boys. He has his share of problems. His father, an abusive alcoholic, hasn't been around for a while. His mother Arlene has to juggle two jobs. To make matters worse, Arlene also has a drinking problem. She tries to hide her drinking from Trevor, but he angrily finds out every time. When school begins, the new social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, offers his class an unusual assignment: ''think of an idea to change our world - and put it into ACTION!'' Trevor's plan begins when he invites Jerry, a homeless drug addict, home for food and a shower. What gradually unfolds is Trevor's idea to change the world.

What Does Paying It Forward Mean?

Think about what you usually do when someone does a favor for you; you try to find a way to pay them back, right? Trevor's got a better idea. Instead of paying them back, Trevor asks that you pay it forward by doing favors for three other people. It has to be something big - ''three big favors for three other people.'' Then those people will do favors for three other people. This will start a sort of kindness domino effect that will spread and eventually change the world.

How Does It Work?

Trevor's intentions are good, but his plans hits some snags. He begins with Jerry, and it seems his favor will pay off when Jerry gets off drugs and finds a job; but Jerry is only off the street for a short time before his addiction takes over again. Next, Trevor gets Arlene and Eugene together for an at-home dinner date, but everything goes wrong. Afterwards, Arlene and Trevor fight about her habit of taking his father back whenever he shows up. Arlene slaps Trevor. When he runs away, she has nobody to turn to for help except Eugene. They find Trevor at the bus station, where Arlene apologizes and says, ''If you can be with me on this,'' maybe she will be able to quit drinking.

Arlene stays true to her word. She also begins spending time with Eugene. They seem to really like each other, even though Eugene is very reserved. You see, Eugene has issues just like anyone else. He is badly scarred on his face. He won't share what happened, and he pulls away from physical intimacy with Arlene. She keeps trying, though, insisting, ''You look good to me.'' Eventually she wears him down. Things seem to be going swimmingly for the three of them until Trevor's father, Ricky, comes back and swears he is sober now.

Arlene feels obligated to give Ricky another chance. This hurts and angers Eugene. It turns out Arlene is a lot like his own mother, who would keep taking back his abusive, alcoholic father. For Eugene, this pattern resulted in his father pouring kerosene over him and lighting him on fire. Arlene insists Ricky would never hurt Trevor that way, but Eugene says, ''All he has to do is not love him.''

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