I was in one of the first boarding groups and boarded the plane easily. There was plenty of space for my carry-on in the overhead bin. I sat down in my window seat and got as comfortable as is possible on a plane. As I sat looking out the window, I listened to the din from other passengers boarding, but did not pay attention to that. Then, a tap on my shoulder. Who does that? I turned to see a man holding out his ticket, which clearly stated that he was in seat 8c, aisle. I kindly explained to him that I was in seat 8a and his seat was the one on the aisle. His response gave me a clue to how this flight would go. "Oh, I thought I ordered a window seat," he said. Weird response, but whatever. I started reading my book. There was constant noise from two seats away. Then, he said, "how do you buckle these things anyway?" Whoa, I didn't think there was anyone left who didn't know how to use an airplane seatbelt. I guess those safety demonstrations are not a waste of time. I stopped what I was doing and did a quick demonstration of the seat belt. Then, I picked up my book again. This person did not pick up on this clear social cue. He kept talking. My one word responses seemed to be enough encouragement to keep him talking. Please let there be someone coming to fill this seat between us. It was the first time in my life that I was hoping not to have the seat next to me be empty. As the passengers finished boarding and it became clear that we were going to have more space between us, the man celebrated the fact that we wouldn't be crammed in like sardines. And I cringed and tried to put on my patient face. Just keep reading. He has to shut up sometime. He'll see that you don't want to talk. Each time, I read about two sentences before he started talking again. I don't know how to be rude so I continued minimal participation in the conversation. Then, right before we took off, we started talking about where we were going. Since this flight was going to Phoenix, I said something about going there for the actual summer weather since it has not been very warm in Milwaukee. He said, "my wife of twenty-four years just left me and I had to get out of Dodge." Oh. In that moment, my annoyance shifted. It wasn't that he was less annoying, it was that I now had a reason to be a little more compassionate. We spent the whole flight in that way. I learned way more about this stranger's life than I wanted to learn. He craned his neck over my shoulder to look at the mountains. He had never been to this part of the country. This was only his second time ever on a plane. The first time in more than fifteen years. No wonder the anxiety was palpable around him. He just kept moving and making noise.
I found myself thinking about how I am so much more patient with kids than I am with adults. This man needed my attention and the distraction of conversation. He was like that kid in your classroom that needs every ounce of your patience and every bit of attention you can give. In my classroom, I would absolutely give it. I wouldn't think twice about it. But out in the real world, I expect adults to be able to fend for themselves and follow social cues. I had to dig deep in my stores of patience to continue to be friendly to this man. I had to remind myself that it is better to be kind than to be rude. I had to keep myself from freaking out when he entered my personal space because he was leaning over me to get a better view. (I have claustrophobia issues with this and was imagining punching him at this point) I reminded myself that the small inconvenience to me would be a great comfort to him. I actively worked the whole flight to remember that I wanted to be compassionate and kind. It was really hard. I teach students to be kind to one another. I teach them to try to empathize. But I forget that sometimes it is really difficult to do. I need to remember this lesson when I am working with my new group of students in the fall. I need to share with them that being kind and compassionate is not always the easiest path to take, but it is the right one. My actions on that plane helped a man who is going through a terrible time in his life have a more pleasant experience with flying. A little bit of inconvenience to me seems like a small price to pay for helping someone else have a better day. Maybe I can help my students to understand this.
Next time I am starting to get annoyed with another adult, I will remember this man. He made it easy for me to see that he needed my compassion. Most people do not wear their hearts on their sleeves. If he had not told me about his recent separation, it would not have been less true that he was in need of some compassion. I will remember to be patient and kind no matter how annoying the person. And I will work hard to do so because in the end it is worth it.