The flight from Chicago to London got off to a rocky start. I was called up to the gate and had my seat re-booked. The nice woman behind the counter gave me a bulkhead seat so I would have plenty of legroom and not have to worry about someone reclining into my lap. However, this was a downgrade. My friend Derek had pulled some strings and had me flying first class in one of those fancy pods you see in the promotional materials. You know, the ones that have a seat that lays all the way out into a bed. Alas, it was not to be. Someone had priority over me (or maybe they actually paid full price for the seat) and so I got moved back a couple of rows.
I took my seat next to a young woman who I pegged at about 16. Her nervous glances around the cabin, coupled with the concert-style wristband made it clear that this was an unaccompanied minor on her first trip. Little did I know that this was the tip of the iceberg.
Stacey (not her real name) was actually 14, on the autism spectrum, suffered from acute anxiety disorder, and had not taken her medication that morning. I got all of that in the first two minutes of sitting next to her. She reminded me of several students I have taught over the years. Intelligent, nervous, and limited understanding of the rules of social interaction. As I settled into my seat, I figured that, like many of my students, she would have something comforting to focus on. Perhaps a book, or a computer game, or even one of those fidget spinners that drive me bonkers. Nope. Stacey was on her own. And Stacey was nervous!
The safety video that plays before a flight is designed to put a person at ease. Have you ever noticed how calm all the people in those videos are? Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on Stacey. The calmness with which the actors put on their oxygen masks and personal floatation devices convinced Stacey of the inevitability of our demise.
As the plane began to taxi, Stacey got increasingly agitated. Her glances became more frantic. It was clear that Stacey was looking for a way out. I tried to engage her in some small talk but Stacey wasn’t biting. Every noise or movement of the plane got her more and more wound up. Had it not been for her seatbelt I am convinced that Stacey would have launched herself out of her seat and into the overhead compartment as we lifted off.
The next six and a half hours were a near-constant stream of questions on her part about the probability of us crashing, whether it was safer to crash land in the water or on the ground, just how much faster we were flying than driving in a car, was I sure that it was safer to fly than to take a car, and did I think there was any chance that the pilot would be willing to turn the flight around and let her off back in Chicago.
The flight attendant cut me off after two beers.
I tried to get Stacey interested in the in-flight entertainment system, but to no avail. I tried to get myself interested in the in-flight entertainment system, but Stacey had more questions. Eventually my lack of sleep caught up with me and I started to nod off. I hoped that Stacey would get a little rest and would wake up as we approached London.
The same flight attendant who cut me off after two beers fed Stacey a steady stream of Coca-cola all night. I woke up three hours later to a buzzed 14 year old who had been up for almost twenty four hours and had been off her medication for easily 36. And Stacey had more questions for me! (Apparently the gentleman across the aisle had not been as good a sport about talking to her all night and had managed to make a pretty impressive cocoon out of his complimentary pillow and blanket.)
As we approached London, Stacey’s nervousness ratcheted up several notches. There were discussions about air sickness, motion sickness, and whether or not the pilot was qualified to get us on the ground in one piece. The flight attendant who had gotten her hopped up on caffeine was nowhere to be found and I was stuck trying to explain why approaching the ground at 500 miles per hour was actually a good thing. Two pinkie swears and an explanation of the physics of flying that sounded convincing (but probably could not float a paper airplane) later, we were on the ground.
Magically, the flight attendant arrived after all the hyperventillating to give Stacey an escort directly to customs and her waiting family. Where was he when I was trying to come up with a convincing explanation for the lift to drag ratio and the competency of the pilot???
I stepped off the plane and started the long walk to customs. Somewhere behind me was the physical manifestation of all the nervousness and tension I have been feeling for the past months. No matter the assurances people have given me, no matter the research I have done, those tensions persisted. But now that I am here, with two feet on the ground in England? All those doubts just disappeared like a teenager in a crowd.