On A Spring Mission - Passenger in Training

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April 14th 2008
Published: August 4th 2009
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Why He GoesWhy He GoesWhy He Goes

To see his cousins, who anxiously await him...
Phillip flexed his muscles to remove his sole bag from my trunk directly outside the entrance to the American Airlines terminal. His mother had overstuffed the three-chamber American Tourister carry-on with needless extras. It bulged at the seams and strained the limits of the zippers. I dismissed the oval tear in the back of his monochrome grey t-shirt and un-ironed cargo shorts; compared to the other schoolboys departing on vacation, he was way overdressed.
He was proud of his independence. The rollers on the bag and shoulder straps gave him the option to go wherever he wanted with his belongings without surrendering anything to me. We approached the automated check-in and I barked at him, “Get over here, please. I need your help.” Phillip loves to help others and me in particular. Others around us might misperceive my tone as one of anger or unnecessary severity. It keeps him focused. There is much an eight-year-old can learn in an airport.
I slid my credit card through the scanner. Automated check-in machines have replaced the duties of twenty-year veterans behind the counter trained in combat empathy. They are equipped with the ability to answer questions on a passenger’s itinerary and special dietary needs faster than a five-time Jeopardy champion can buzz in. The dedicated staff of tired institutional blouses and navy vests remains to affix routing stickers to each bag. Even liberally applied rouge and sky-blue mascara cannot conceal their faded beauty. These underpaid women will soon be phased out as well. Demand for low fares, rising costs, and vicious competition will see to their demise.
I guided Phillip as he followed the prompts until they indicated our boarding passes were being printed. In four quick swoops, the floppy cards fell into a lower tray. I collected them and handed them to him.
What do you think these are, Phillip?” He studied them carefully.
“So we can get on the plane.” He was clearly not tested enough.
“OK, then, which ones are mine and which ones are yours?” There were four in total. In a few seconds, he separated them by our names and answered correctly.
“Good. Look at them again. Where are we flying to first? I need you to tell me so we can get to the right gate. Otherwise, we might get on the wrong plane.” None of this was true, but it empowered Phillip to make quick and accurate decisions. He enjoyed the challenge and thought he was in control.
“San Ant- No, wait. Dallas.”
“Well done.” I put my hands on my hips and leaned closer to his face. “From which gate do we leave for Dallas? You need top check to correct pass, not the one for San Antonio.”
“B5!” he declared emphatically.
“And when should we be there? When is the boarding time?”
“Five fifteen”, he countered.
“Fine. So how much time do we have to get to the gate? What time is it now?” He had no wristwatch and immediately began to spin around. Confusion started to set in. “Look at the departure screen. The time should be on there.” He darted away and made a speedy return. “We have twenty minutes, Dad.”
“Well done. But, Phillip, I am not sure where to go! Where is gate B5?” Yet another spin but this time more passengers were cramming into lines to check in and print out boarding passes. He caught the signs for the B gates. We dropped off my highly experienced forty-pound green rolling twenty-two with a new ID tag on it. The TSA agent tossed it on the conveyor belt and it disappeared through the X-ray machine. It was properly destined for South Texas.
Phillip handled himself well. He did not panic at all. I figured I would empower him further and temporarily cast aside his long list of recent memory lapses and propensity to lose his belongings. He was on a roll.
Just before the metal detectors, I knelt down before him and put the envelope of boarding passes at chin level. “Take these, OK. You hold onto them. But you cannot ever lose them or else we cannot board. So, put them in a safe place.” Of course, it is not true that anyone would ever be refused boarding after the passes are issued. They could be reprinted even during last call.
Phillip processed my request and then threw his hands backwards and upwards towards his shoulders. He even looked away. By the look on his face, it would be easily to conclude I had just offered him medallions of liver marinated in mayonnaise for lunch.
“Uhh, Dad…” his voice became dry and stuttered. “I think you should keep them.” He was ready to get me to the gate, but recalled in order the last five ball caps he had left on neighbors’ porches and in the back seat of my Nissan. There was no way he was going to be chained with the guilt of being left behind and it be his fault. He had been admonished before for his carelessness. The artificial pressure I imposed upon him had taken too much of a toll. Too much was riding on these boarding passes. Better to leave them in the hands of a trustworthy adult. As far as he was concerned, if I’m not going, no one can blame me for it. Without drama, I nonchalantly slipped the blue envelope somewhere in my daypack.
U.S. carriers have taken away much from their clientele over the years. Gone are the days of complimentary adult drinks. Not only must I now pay five dollars for a lukewarm Miller Lite (the Ringleader of Pseudo Beers), but when ordering a soft drink, I receive a measly amount; ice cubes consume the majority of the seven-ounce cup. Mr. & Mrs. T’s Bloody Mary Mix is one of those tiny rewards that greet me on domestic flights. I actively savor the piercing spice and life-threatening levels of sodium in each serving. I no longer seek out the proper time to stop the stewardess (oops - flight attendant in proper PC parlance) on her dashes up and down the narrow aisle to sheepishly ask for a second pack of peanuts; airlines offer no more between-meal fillers. Headphones cost a pittance, but I refuse to pay on the principle alone. I can do without an in-flight B movie starring Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah. If one of my pieces of luggage exceeds fifty pounds, I am fined even if I check in no second piece. When the flight is half full, this becomes a point of much contention between irate passengers and check-in agent, and one of entertainment for those of us in line. Not even the prohibition of smoking in the cabin has softened my malaise. Soon enough, commercial airline travel will have lost all the appeal I dreamed of as a child before I stepped on my first flight ever to Madrid.

In my line of work, crossing paths with irresponsible parents is as commonplace as sighting of naïve twenty-nothings in knit caps at Howard Dean rallies. This quasi-criminal act (the poor parenting, not attending Dean pep talks) takes many forms; indifference and negligence top the list. However, it is the enabling parent that I feel compelled to challenge and battle at all times. I never back down. My persistence to call out parents who see their children as the second coming of Mother Theresa has caused my supervisors much consternation; I have even been sent out of critical meetings when I inform parents of the severity of their child’s predicament. (I recall one time when I told a mother either she would have to do something soon about her daughter or she would wind up pregnant, in jail, or both. The girl was just fourteen.) Instead of replying to emails in a conciliatory fashion, I counter firmly. This often results in my having to explain my well-justified though stern comments in administrators’ offices decked with framed diplomas and professional commendations.
The enabling parent’s love for their child has blinded them to the truth. Though not worded as such in my Connecticut Teaching Certificate, I have taken it upon myself to help them see the light. Enablers dismiss the lack of their child’s classroom achievement by citing some wishy-washy politically correct disability currently highlighted for three straight days on Oprah. They deflect a long pattern of disruptive misbehavior as the fault of other antagonizing peers. It is never their child’s fault, you see. Enabling parents blame instructors for their child’s lack of effort and performance. They demand constant updates from each teacher (never mind we have one hundred others to see through to the next level) through phone calls and emails we (not they) are supposed to initiate. Meetings are called on Friday afternoons of all times to discuss progress and how this impacts poor little Adam’s feelings. Sorry, but we are human like anyone else: We sprint to our cars on a Friday afternoon to re-enter the real world after a week in the fuzzy galaxy of education. We must fill the void of manipulative parent and child communication because it gives them both a reason to maintain the status quo. Among the most annoying tendencies is their choosing to reward their children for meeting horrendously low expectations, but never exceeding them. “Good job, Ashley, for bringing a pencil to class today! Here’s a new iPod.” “Thanks, Mike, for not a single bad comment on your progress sheet. Let’s go out for pizza.” But the worst behavior that breeds the most irreparable damage comes from the parents who extract their children from class for a week and think there will be absolutely no repercussions. Meanwhile they get to hug Mickey and thanklessly devour overpriced, yet undercooked pizza. In order to keep teachers informed, a typical email will read as follows:

To: Staff
From: McAllister@volvosoccermom.com
Re: Chance of a Lifetime
Date: 11 February 2008

Skyler will be out of school tomorrow the 12th and will not be back until the 23rd. He will be visiting his ailing uncle in Ocala, Florida. Of course, we do plan some time apart so Skyler, Brittany, and Chelsea can be exposed to some of the cultural and historical sites in the area.
Please leave all class work, handouts, lesson plans, transparencies, and directions for oral and group activities in the office within the next twenty minutes. Failure to do so will lead to further emails and accusations of your professional incompetence. Without this work, I will be forced to call more pointless meetings to discuss how his low grade in your class has hurt my darling boy’s fragile self-esteem and declining prospects for entry into Princeton.
Thank you. I am always supportive of teachers’ undying devotion of time in spite of my son’s misguided sense of belonging and insolence.

- Mrs. McAllister

Of course, the only thing Skyler comes back with from Florida is two sets of mouse ears and a sunburn.
In an unrelated event, an anonymous secondary language school teacher visited his son’s third grade classroom two days before a week’s visit to Texas to see family. It turns out the highly educated father, on paper only, did not see his son’s vacation week did not coincide with his own. With airline tickets booked and arrangements in place, it forced said teacher to profusely apologize to his cheerful and understanding peer. Her informing him of his son’s enthusiasm and high standing among other students was a small consolation.
“I hate people like me”, he uttered. He squatted at his son’s desk. His thick thighs force the fours miniature desk’s legs off the floor.
“Don’t worry about it! It is good for him and he will learn so much with you.” She radiated a disarming smile, the kind that induces daily hugs from her children while they hang up their backpacks, get ready for lunch count, and squirm with joy that today’s special is Art.
“You don’t get it, Mrs. Forrest. I never make this mistake. Furthermore -”
“I already have his assignments ready for you.” She handed him a textbook and two workbooks. Her written instructions were clear; her spoken tone was soothing. The admonishment he wanted from her was not going to happen.
He ceased with his apologies, took the materials, and promised her everything would be done properly. By the time the aircraft started its descent for Dallas, Phillip was finished and content that he had a bonus week and fun ahead of him with no schoolwork. He put his tray in the upright and locked position and brought his seat forward.

I was already convinced that I had gone through the “Why?” stage with my son. At eight years old, perhaps his cognitive skills should be advanced enough to determine the chemical formula for gasoline without my help. Though he will not admit it aloud, Phillip has reached the conclusion that Daddy does not know everything and cannot correctly answer all of his questions. Soon enough, he will also realize that Daddy, more often than not, does not care about how far it is between Jupiter’s fourth moon and Saturn’s rings. Yet to keep the fire of his burning desire for learning alive, I will pretend to.
Phillip flips through the in-flight magazine and studies everything carefully. Eight-year-olds do not read lightly; they scan the tiniest details. The interrogatory assault soon commences. “What is the U.S.O., Dad?”
“It’s a support organization for the military.”
“Ah, like fighter planes and armies?”
“Not quite. It supports people’s needs.” I was certain I had put out that fire and craned my neck to get a look at the other passengers on board.
Phillip interjected, “But why do we need a military?”
My head dropped into my chest. Why couldn’t he ask me about the infield fly rule? That is so much easier to explain. “Because some countries are really bad, or the United States has to defend itself.” Lame, but I felt this would keep him quiet.
“You mean like in Iraq?”
“In a way, yes.” Any prospect of outlining our country’s involvement in the Middle East could make a flight from Hartford to Dallas feel like we were going to Sydney.
He analyzed each aircraft’s details belonging to American Airlines. “Is a Super 80 as good as the 737 we took last time?”
I sighed and tried to hide underneath the cushion of my seat. Phil had already completed all activities comparing fractions to decimals. “Well, I am OK with both.” My knowledge of commercial aircraft extends as far as my understanding of obstetrics. As far as I was concerned, neither type of plane pointed my vital organs at a sixty-degree angle and thrusted them towards Earth at five hundred miles per hour.
Next question, with no preface whatsoever: “What is the verb, “to be”?
That I handled flawlessly. My son, so help me, will know how to conjugate a verb. Fractions and decimals de damned.
The rest of the queries came in no particular order. He had crumpled the ace in a new deck of cards by having sat on it. “But the deck has all the cards now, dad. Why can’t we use it anymore? Why is it no good?” Then another: “What’s the orange button above us do?” Followed by, “What is radar? What is a mini ops camera?”
The light jostling of the cabin set off the illuminated seat belt sign. Phillip does not care for any perturbations in his concentrations, especially at 35,000 feet. He turns to me and taps me on the shoulder. “Daddy, why do we have turbulence?” Time to put on my eighth grade science hat and bust out an airflow chart. My feeble description of air currents and waves was sufficient to send him back to an assigned reading on how an Icelandic girl of his age looks after puffins in the spring.

Across from me on the aisle seat sits an Hispanic woman not many years apart from me. Unaccompanied, she is unquestionably the most striking figure anywhere between the cockpit and the rear exit. The color of her skin is of smooth caramel. Her long shiny thighs and calves lend a magnetic quality. They run from her ankles for what seems like several feet up to her shoulders. Few men could resist an occasional glance at them. As I am in the middle seat, I must fight through a plainly dressed and forgetful woman engrossed in a Piccoult novel to make sure that the object of my piqued curiosity does not escape. I dart my head in front and behind her neck every several seconds while pretending to organize a notebook or read from the Emergency Evacuation card.
It is not that she is exceptionally beautiful; she isn’t. Age has just started to encumber the neck-snapping looks she had ten years ago. But it is clear that she puts much attention into her appearance. Her face possesses enough magnetism to entice men’s repeated stares without anything outstanding about any single feature. She has polished her flawlessly manicured 3-inch nails in high gloss purple enamel. However plain in its presentation, she has taken extraordinary care of her hair; it falls from a part at the center of her head in two ebony drapes and labors to reach the small of her back. Absent a diamond ring on her finger, she rarely utters a word; her flim-flam instructional guide on Zen Buddhism receives very little of her attention. At least an hour from landing at Dallas, I have positioned myself to view the sharp and hypnotic arcs in her figure accentuated by a short, tasteful, but not too revealing black cocktail dress. Much to my delight, it fails to encase her full and heavy chest. Stray strands of her hair snake downward into the crevasse of her cleavage and out of sight.
The main cabin trembles once again, visibly aggravating Phillip to my right. He desires a smooth and motionless approach into Dallas. As a catch another glimpse to my left, I am hoping for a far choppier descent.


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