Flying and the Art of Listening

Today I flew to Providence, Rhode Island, for a week-long workshop. I’m really pumped about the things I’m going to be learning and all the ways I’ll be able to use them in my classroom. I love bringing innovation and excitement to my room; kids need it. And God knows I need it.

This morning, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 3 AM and began my harrowing journey to the airport. I came downstairs at my best friend’s house after showering, and was greeted by a TV flickering in the living room. Odd. We turned the TV off before we all went to bed last night. Then suddenly, at the sound of my footsteps, the TV flickered off and I noticed that the lid to the ottoman was off-center. I hope and pray that one of my best friend’s children was in the ottoman, because I had just enough time to have a minor heart attack and get in my car to drive to the airport. I guess I should check in with her and make sure they’re all alive.

My GPS took me to the wrong place–which wasn’t bad, it just said the airport was on the wrong side of the road. I turned around in a parking and went to try again, except there was a curb in the middle of that road. (Dallas, what’s up with that?) So I drove the wrong way up a highway for about twenty feet. Thank God it was 3 AM so there were no cops or anybody else to see me. I was so embarrassed.

When I finally got to the airport, things went a lot more smoothly. Airports at 4am are a very strange place. There are men in business suits and teenagers in pajamas all sitting side-by-side, ignoring the world in favor of their cell phones. There are women with big bags people-watching and couples with dogs that are too cute for me to pass without petting (the dogs, not the people.) The smell of Auntie Anne’s pretzels mix with the bite of Starbucks and somewhere in the distance, the sound of the Chick-Fil-A grate announces the arrival of chicken biscuits in our lives.

(Completely unrelated, as I type this, my favorite song, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” has started to play over the speakers at this coffee shop. I always stop to smile when the world has given me that small, beautiful gift of my favorite song playing unexpectedly.)

As I settled in amongst the airport culture, I thought about pulling out my laptop to write, but 4AM Plucky was definitely not going to write anything that 1PM Plucky would not have just completely tossed out. So I just accepted my place in this odd ecosystem and sat in an unfamiliar shroud of silence and solitude. I’ve never traveled alone before, I realized as I waited for my flight.

The first leg of my trip–an uneventful flight from Dallas to Baltimore–passed without my notice. I slept from the moment I got on the plane to the moment it landed. I have recently mastered the art of sleeping on a plane. (Shout out to the Echo Buds and their phenomenal noise-cancelling abilities.)

It was the second flight, the 45 minute trip from Baltimore to Providence that brought today’s lesson.

There I sat, bleary-eyed and quiet, in the first row of the plane. Seriously, I cannot recommend enough sitting in the first row. SO much leg room. I put in my Echo Buds and turned on my chill Jack Johnson, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz playlist to keep me company. Sleep tinged the edges of my vision and I was nearly lulled into my second comatose state of the morning when the man sitting next to me spoke to me.

“I’m sorry?” I looked up and took my headphones out for him to repeat himself.

“What do you do?” He repeated. For a moment I was really disoriented. What I do is sleep on planes, except you’ve interrupted that. I decided not to let Angry Plucky win today; he wins so often that I thought I’d change it up today.

“I’m a teacher,” I responded, wondering where this questions had come from and where it was going. My own, personal, in-flight Cotton-Eyed Joe.

He then told me about his job. It sounded very important and like something I have no aptitude for (numbers and computer programming and whatnot.) He told me about his reason for being in Providence this week. He told me about his parents. In the span of that 45 minute flight, I had learned what seemed to be this man’s entire history. He told me of his daughters, his pets, his wife. He told me how he’s lived in the UK his entire life and works remotely, but has to fly in every so often. I’m telling you, he told me everything.

“What subject do you teach?” He asked when he’d exhausted stories of himself. I explained that I teach middle school English and I was flying into Providence for professional development.

Something about this sparked new thoughts for my new friend. He began to tell me about his mother–a well-educated woman who came up through Catholic school and ended with a master’s degree in education. He told me when she wrote, it was like scripture. He spoke so fondly of his mother, I couldn’t help but smile. And then he asked if I’d read a poem he’d written.

Y’all. I don’t know what it us about my face that invited random strangers to show me poetry they’ve written, but this is not a first for me. I’m not entirely sure how I get myself into these situations!

He asked me to read it like a literature professor, the way his mom would have. And then to provide feedback.

So there we were, at an altitude of way-too-high-to-be-reading-strangers’-uninvited-poetry, me reading his poem about the wonderland of his mind and him watching expectantly, holding his breath, waiting for something from me.

I don’t know what his mother would have said; and I knew I couldn’t fulfill that role for him this morning, sleep-deprived and under-caffeinated as I was. So I told him that I liked the parallel construction–which was true–and passed the phone back to him.

The conversation didn’t end there. He soon went into his philosophy of parenting, how dogs change your world, and how important my job is. And I spent the morning doing something that I’m honestly not very well-practiced in. Listening.

This morning, for whatever reason, this man needed an ear, and I was there to listen. Something in my own brain–either exhaustion or intuition–told me that this conversation was not about me. In fact, it wasn’t entirely about him. This man mentioned several times throughout the duration of our conversation, communication is so important, and something that humans fail at more often than we’d like to admit.

This morning was about communication. It was about connection. It was about shining a light in the dark and hoping beyond hope that a light will glimmer back from somewhere. It was about remembering we’re not alone.

Even in that packed airplane, I felt isolated. I’d built my own walls. But 45 minutes of listening reminded me that we are never alone. That’s not how we’re built. Community. Connection. Communication. They’re all so important.

And so this afternoon, I am grateful for short flights and the joy of listening, instead of talking.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

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