"I Can't Believe You're a Teacher!"

I walked down the aisle to seat 21E, got out my headphones, downloaded the latest This American Life podcast, and settled in for my flight home from the regional diakonia meeting in Phoenix...

I walked down the aisle to seat 21E, got out my headphones, downloaded the latest This American Life podcast, and settled in for my flight home from the regional diakonia meeting in Phoenix. I don’t talk to people on flights—I’ve found in the past that either a conversation doesn’t start, which is awkward, or I can’t figure out how to end it, which is worse. I hate middle seats, since there are two people to avoid talking to. I had tried to switch my seat at check-in, but nothing else was available. A minute later, a boy and his parents came down the aisle, speaking to each other in Spanish. I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about a conversation. He sat down in the aisle seat next to me, his mom and dad in the ones in front of and behind him. When we got up to let the woman with the window seat past, he asked me if I liked flying. “I hate it,” he said without almost any accent.

I fumbled with my headphones in my hand. Do I talk to this kid about flying? I’m a math and science teacher. Maybe if I explain a little about how flight works, I thought, he’ll feel safer. On my flight down to Phoenix the previous night, I had noticed a couple things for the first time. As I’ve taught science over the last couple years, a curiosity has grown in me to understand the natural world. “Look out the window at the wing,” I told him as we started to taxi. “It probably won’t happen now because the air is dry, but sometimes when you’re taking off, little clouds will form on top of the wing.” I told him how lower pressure above the wing and higher pressure below generates lift, drawing a diagram on my phone as I went. But the same phenomenon makes the air above the wing colder, meaning it can hold less moisture, leading to the tiny clouds. “No way!... O God I hate this part,” he grabbed the armrest as we sped up and began to climb.

He got past his fear in a few seconds. “Tell me something else!” As I was thinking of what to say, the plane started to bank right. “Watch this,” I lifted my phone above my head. “See how the ground is like this,” I said, holding my arm out at an angle. “Which way is gravity pulling?” He pointed down and to the right. I dropped the phone, and it fell straight into my other hand. “You try it.” I handed him my phone, and he dropped it a couple of times. Regardless of which way the plane turned, the phone fell “down” from our point of view, not in the direction of gravity. “This is blowing my mind!” he said a little too loudly for our neighbors.

We ended up talking for the entire flight about science, life in Mexico, school, and common interests. I saw this raw curiosity in him that I am constantly looking for in my students, and it made me want to share my fascination with him. Although faith never came up in our conversation, I was reminded of these words of Fr. Giussani: “I came to believe deeply that only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction” (The Risk of Education, pg. 11-12). I think there is an analogy to the problem of faith here. I showed Andre how science is relevant to life not by getting out a textbook, but by pointing out things in his present experience. This is the same attitude towards the natural world that has started to develop in me since becoming a teacher.

About half-way through the flight, Andre said something in Spanish to his mom. “I told her I can’t believe you’re a teacher! Why can’t you be my teacher! You make everything interesting.” He spent several minutes trying to convince me to move to Mexico to teach at his school. As we were getting off the plane, his mother leaned over. “I can tell you must love what you do,” she said. Obviously I was flattered by Andre’s admiration and his mother’s recognition, and happy to see how his curiosity grew during our conversation. But it created a series of questions for me: Where did this come from? Why did I talk to him? Why am I different from his teachers? Is this admiration enough for me?

I think I took the risk of talking to Andre because of a gentle nudge to verify the claim that “reality has never betrayed me.” This theme from The New York Encounter was mentioned numerous times during the diakonia meetings, and has been a challenge for me. I affirm it intellectually, but do I live as if it were true that reality is good? In this case, I saw the possibility that there was something for me in this circumstance. So I took Andre seriously in a way that most adults do not, in a way that I might not have. He felt that my presence on the plane was a gift, but this encounter was given to me, too. I didn’t generate any of this. It was offered to me—all I did was say “yes.”