Airplanes and airports have been my classrooms for over 30 years.


It might be the special effect of flier anxiety, or the frustration that comes with forced confinement in tiny spaces, but I see some pretty special stuff in the terminal and in the air. It’s a grand place to learn about others and about myself.


For example, I have discovered a fervent outbreak of assertiveness can waylay one’s travel agenda. I was sitting at my gate when I saw a dapperly dressed, martinied-up businessman going nuts at the check-in counter. His plane was still on the ground and attached to the terminal, but the “just doing her job” gate attendant said it was too late to board. The red-faced traveler hurled threats and obscenities while he poked the female attendant with a vicious index finger. Then he made a mad dash for the door. He didn’t make it. Minutes later, three security guards had him in cuffs. The plane took off to Boston on schedule, while the businessman was certain to be spending the night in a Chicago precinct.


My takeaway: when you screw up, accept the consequences with grace. And watch out who you poke with your index finger.


Last year, I was on a plane with a screaming toddler who was sitting behind a disheveled young man. This guy had arm-length tattoos, tattered green shorts and a faded punk-rock T-shirt. Rather than being frustrated at the wailing passenger behind him, this imaginative twentysomething engaged in an hour-long game of peek-a-boo, first with a magazine as a hiding spot, then with a towel he took out of his duffle bag. Next, he pulled out a pair of purple socks with holes in the toe, put them on each hand and performed a puppet show that could play in Vegas. The little girl was mesmerized and her screams dissolved into laughter, to the appreciation of rows of other travelers who could now get back to their video games and USA Todays.


Lesson learned: don’t judge people by the color of their shorts or the size of their tattoos. Being open to others may curb the annoying screams that can pierce a serene setting.    


Most recently, I was on a short flight from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, where I saw two people fall in love in only 570 miles. Ike and Kimberly appreciated many of the same things in life: classical and rock music, a television show called The Good Wife, creole cooking, and Indiana, the state where they had both been born and raised. I felt like I was witnessing a classy but seductive dance high above the mountaintops of New Mexico. Each little vignette they shared was fully heard and appreciated. There was no attempt to out-story the other person. Ike’s smile lit up each time he nodded his head. Kimberly spoke in a whisper with a faint Irish lilt. Before the wheels touched down, they were holding hands and exchanging phone numbers. Incidentally, Ike and Kimberly were both the same age: seventy-four.


Moral for Don: love is abundant at any point in life.


Where’s your favorite classroom?