Thursday, May 19, 2016

What does it mean to be a school teacher?

Everyone felt grumpy as they boarded flight JQ527 a few weeks ago from Sydney to Melbourne, Australia. People argued over overhead luggage space. All except one teenager, who was smiling and laughing. His name was Shamran, and he had Down syndrome. After the short flight, the cabin crew said they could not land the plane because one passenger, Shamran, would not return to his seat. He felt sick and lay on the floor, refusing to get up. The plane circled above the airport, running low on fuel. Finally cabin manager John Chasson made an unusual announcement. "Is there a special needs teacher on board?"

                                                                                                                          Photo by Paul Jeffers
Sophie Murphy, 42, with 20 years of teaching experience, is completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne. She found the boy sprawled on his belly. After speaking quietly to his parents, she lay on her stomach to face him. "It was teacher mode, teacher talk, teacher voice," she said. She asked where he was from and what was his favorite book. He said "Winnie the Pooh," so she held his hand as they talked about Piglet and Eeyore and SpongeBob SquarePants too. Eventually they sat together, as his parents wept and nodded "thank you." Murphy asked for sick bags and held them, one after another, as Shamran vomited, including on her. "It's OK," she told him. "I'm your friend. We're OK. We're going to do this together." When she asked for tissues to clean up, tissues and wipes were offered from a dozen hands. Natural color came back to Shamran's face. Looking out the window, he pointed out his favorite colors. After taxiing to the gate, the fasten seatbelt sign blinked off, but NO ONE MOVED. There was no stampede. Passengers let Shamran and Murphy walk down the aisle first, quietly clapping and smiling as they disembarked. Later a young woman approached Murphy. She had been sitting one row back with her husband, a physician. "He didn't know what to do," she said. "He was actually watching you, and taking notes."

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