After two days of meetings in Toronto in late May I was sitting in the lower departure area of Pearson International Airport. The departure lounge was full of people waiting for their plane, anxious to get to their destination. Within the crowd was a mother and toddler. The toddler was having a full-on meltdown and nothing the mother tried, (nor anyone attempting to come to the mother’s aid) would calm the child down. This went on for almost an hour. It was impossible to escape the screams, even with expensive noise-cancelling headphones. Most people looked over their shoulders at the mother and her child. Some rolled their eyes. Others gave empathetic looks. Everyone hoped the pair wasn’t on their flight.
My flight was called and it became clear that the pair was also headed to Thunder Bay. They boarded early and the looks of the other passengers continued. I soon boarded the plane and took my seat, which was immediately behind the toddler. At first, the child was incredibly calm and he engaged in some play with the flight attendants. The mother chatted with the flight attendants and explained that the child was adopted. His birth mother was a drug user. The child, Jack, was on the autism spectrum but was in early stages of identification. I was introduced to the mom and Jack and we chatted for a few minutes as we reached cruising altitude. Jack seemed to be in good spirits. Then, with almost no warning, another meltdown began. At first, it was because the he couldn’t run freely around the airplane. The meltdown escalated into arm flailing and screams – those same unescapable screams from inside the airport. Mom held on to him in her seat, trying to both sooth Jack and keep him safe. And then, the best part: people in the vicinity began to help.
First, the flight attendants stepped in by giving him jobs to do, like reorganize pop cans in the beverage cart. Second, other passengers worked to entertain Jack. Still a few others engaged in conversation with a very exhausted mother. Jack even was able to use the in-flight intercom to say hello to the pilot. The flight continued with the collaboration and cooperation of several people. Jack calmed down. Our flight eventually landed in Thunder Bay and Jack enthusiastically said goodbye to everyone in the back of the plane. The flight attendants maintained their awesome professionalism and multiple passengers offered to help mom deplane. It was a really great end to what many people might characterize as an awful flight.
This whole incident resonated with me because it was such a wonderful exercise in patience, empathy, understanding, helpfulness, and the need to be flexible. As I enter a new environment where I will be surrounded with early learners and the unpredictability of an elementary school I am reminded that the same traits I witnessed on board Air Canada 8539 are the very same traits that I must bring with me. Also, I’m reminded of the importance of offering help when I see someone who might be in need. Jack, (and his mom) was a good teacher for me. It wasn’t that long ago where I may have been one of the passengers rolling his eyes. Hooray for personal growth, right?