The teachers in our lives come in all different shapes and sizes.
I learned a life lesson from a very brief encounter I had with a stranger. It changed my life forever. This little girl named Susan was only six years old. I had a speaking engagement in South Carolina and I live in Connecticut. At that time I was walking with a cane due to my MS. All airlines requested I arrive early whenever I booked a flight.
My favorite airlines to fly is Southwest Airline. I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the pilots and flight attendants are so friendly and I’ve always had a great experience. I believe their laid-back attitude puts passengers in a relaxed mood. One part that I appreciate most is the absence of assigned seating. You get to sit wherever you are most comfortable.
When I arrive at my gate, I usually wait with unaccompanied minors and anyone requiring extra assistance or time boarding. This particular day when I arrived at the gate, a mother and her two young children were waiting to pre-board. The mother was very friendly, talking a mile a minute, and it didn’t take me very long to realize she was nervous.
Her two children, an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, were flying unaccompanied to see their father. I’ve learned that when somebody is nervous, you can relax the situation by distracting them with friendly banter. Allowing somebody to talk to an open ear works wonders.
After listening for a few minutes, I asked her where they lived. Her son jumped right in and answered, “South Carolina!” His mother angrily corrected him, “No, you don’t! You live in Connecticut. Your father lives in South Carolina, not you.”
Ok, remember how I just told you that sometimes all you really need to do is listen? I only wish I would’ve taken my own advice. Obviously, this was a red flag issue. She turned to me, feeling the need to explain or maybe was just getting used to a new divorce three months ago. The court ordered her to send the children to visit their father once a month for the weekend. This was their first time flying unaccompanied to visit their father. I’m still not sure which part upset her more.
Quickly changing the subject, I introduced myself by my first name. Their mom reciprocated by telling me the boy’s name was Tim and the girl’s name was Susan. Being on a first-name basis with the kids made me feel more comfortable speaking with them. It breaks my heart. All children live in a world of “stranger danger”.
Soon after the attendant walked up the ramp to escort us on the plane, I noticed the mother’s expression instantly turned to a nervous one. To reassure her, I leaned over, gave her a hug goodbye and whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, I will keep an eye on them!”
I was so glad we were not only first on the plane, but the children chose seats directly across from me. It would be very easy to keep an eye on them without either of them realizing what I was doing. As soon as we were settled, the rest of the passengers filed down the aisle to choose their seats, place their carry-on baggage in the compartments overhead and neatly place the rest of their belongings underneath the seat.
I looked over to check on the kids in the midst of the commotion and realized Susan‘s lip was quivering. There was a tear rolling down her cheek, and this was no happy camper. In between the next two people walking down the aisle I asked her, “What’s wrong, sweetie?” She quickly answered in the softest voice, “I’m scared. Can I sit next to you?” I quickly answered, “I would love you to.”
That’s the benefit of flying Southwest! If passengers had assigned seats, it might not have been that easy. As soon as she heard me, she unbuckled her seat and literally flew in between the next two people walking down the aisle into my arms. She was shaking like a leaf, but once I calmed her down, she sat in the seat next to me. I helped her securely fasten her seatbelt belt.
The pilot came on the intercom to prepare the cabin for takeoff. In no time, we reached our flying altitude, and the pilot once again came on the intercom to tell us we could undo our seatbelts, and enjoy the rest of the flight.
Susan turned to me and asked, “Would you like to hear a joke?” “Of course,” I responded. “I would love to hear a joke!” And then I had a great idea. I turned to the people sitting behind me and asked if they would like to join in and hear a first-grade joke. These kind strangers, two women and a man, must’ve been grandparents or at least parents because they instantly put down what they were doing and gave her their full attention.
She propped up on her knees facing the row behind us to make eye contact, and said, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” We all looked at each other and pretended we didn’t know why. Delighted by our clueless blank expressions, she proudly answered, “To cross to the other side!” Of course, we’ve all heard this joke many, many times over the years, but we all acted like it was the first time we had ever heard it. As soon as she saw us laughing, a floodgate of first-grade jokes erupted in rapid-fire.
After three of them, I told her the people behind us were so exhausted from laughing at her jokes, and we needed to give them a break. I was sure they were needing rescue. Her brother, who was sitting across from us, did his very best to pretend he didn’t know who we were and she certainly was not with him. His behavior made me chuckle. It was so age-appropriate!
In no time, the pilot once again told us to prepare for landing. Once we landed, the attendants requested we remain in our seats until the rest of the passengers had disembarked. Then, she would accompany the children to their dad.
When she came back and told them to gather their belongings, the little girl looked at me and her lip was quivering again. I thought at any minute a tear was going to start rolling down her cheek. I asked what was wrong and she responded, “I want to wait for you!” I gave her a big hug, thanked her and said, “I wish I could walk with you, but I use a cane and go very slowly.”
Her father was anxiously waiting for them. I didn’t want her to delay him another second. Susan looked at me and said, “I don’t mind. You go as slow as my grandma. She walks with a cane and I like to walk with her best of anybody in the whole wide world because she never tells me to rush and I always get to look around and see everything.”
Those little words broke my heart! All I could remember was raising my four boys at similar ages and yelling, “Hurry up, let’s go, come on we’re going to be late!” I was sure getting them where they were going was so much more important than letting them look around their environment. I re-examined my thinking! I wish I could’ve gone back and redone all those memories. Who knew?
I always considered using the cane to be an inconvenience for other people in my life. My inability to move at their rate was nothing but a problem. And here this little girl who now was my new best friend was making me realize that where people are going is so much less important than how they get there.
I gave her another hug and said, “Thank you, that was so sweet, but I am sure that your Dad is so anxious to see you!” I bet if she shared with him what she had just told me, he would also slow down and let her look around. To be honest, I’m not really sure in the midst of the chaos of four boys and trying to meet everybody’s schedules, I would have been able to do that myself, but I was hoping for the best.
What I learned from that moment on, and I never forgot, was to ask people regardless of their age what they want, how they want to do it and if you’re able to help. Just because I think I am inconveniencing people does not mean that people feel the same way. I remember saying a hundred times to my children when they were growing up “Use your words.” Don’t assume anything. It makes an ass out of you and me!