I boarded the plane on a muggy July afternoon in Columbus and spied an empty aisle seat three rows down on the right. Two pre-teen aged girls sat, backpacks on their laps, in the middle and window seats. “Unaccompanied Minors” was like a neon sign floating above their heads. I plopped myself down next to them in silent collusion with their mothers whom I was sure were somewhere biting their fingernails and figuring how to assuage the hollow pit in their stomachs. I would protect them on the flight, keep all n’er do wells at bay. Mothers stick together like that.
As passengers filed by and the plane filled, I couldn’t help but overhear the girls introducing themselves to each other. They spoke with an openness that surprised me, like they had known each other since kindergarten.
“I’m going into seventh grade,” announced the Window Seat girl with her shoulder length auburn hair and riotous flash of freckles across her face. “I hope it’s better than last year.”
“Well, I’ll be going into Miss Connors’ class I guess. She’s the fourth grade teacher who loves worksheets,” answered the Middle Seater as she dug through a well worn, pink Hello Kitty backpack with marker stains bleeding though the front pocket. Old homework, broken pencils, and a variety of half eaten items spilled out as she spoke, her face hidden by cascades of chocolate brown hair.
“Here, let me help you with that,” I offered as I caught some of the items before they hit the floor.
“Thanks,” she mumbled as she dug out a twisted metal headband and slipped it on, pulling back her bangs to reveal chubby cheeks and hazel eyes that held something older than fourth grade.
“Where are you girls headed?”
“I’m going to grandmother’s. She lives in California. I used to live there before my mother married my new father,” said the Window Seat, “I live in Indiana now.”
“How do you like Indiana?” I asked.
“It’s okay. I guess new dad likes me.”
“ I’m sure he does,” I responded.
“We laugh and everything,” she smiled and her braces gleamed. “He calls me his new side-kick.”
“I don’t have a dad anymore,” announced the Middle Seat.
“Oh,” her blunt announcement caught me off guard.
“It’s no big deal,” she said unwrapping some Oreos, “my mom and I are a team.”
“I bet you have an amazing mom,” I agreed. This conversation was making me a little nervous. I did not want to tread on dangerous territory so I laid my head back and took out my novel.
“What do you do? Who are you?” inquired the Middle Seat who did not pick on up my non-verbal cue.
“Sometimes I’m a teacher and sometimes I’m a writer,” I answered.
“Hmmm,” she said, “interesting.”
“I think I’ll read for awhile,” I added with a smile and nod toward my book.
The girls continued to chat and giggle through take-off, sharing information about movie stars and reality TV shows. As the plane settled into its cruising altitude, they settled into Ipods and Sudoku.
About a hour into the flight, as we sipped on soft drinks and crunched on pretzels, the Window Seat leaned forward and stared me straight in the eye.
“I didn’t have any friends this year. No one liked me at my new school.”
My hear fluttered at this announcement. “I am so sorry.”
“They all called me California Girl. They said I thought I was cooler than anyone else because I grew up in California. It wasn’t true. They don’t even know me on the inside.” My heart ached immediately for this emerging young woman. A child so filled with pain that she couldn’t help but let it spill into the laps of strangers on a plane.
“Jerks and bullies,” offered Middle Seat matter-of-factly. “All schools have ‘em.”
“Some days they would wait for me after school and want me to fight them. I hated it.” She leaned her head to the left and rested it against the window.
“Did you?” asked Middle Seat tearing into a sleeve of Fig Newtons.
“No, my mom said I’m too good for that. But they would call me things like ho, and bitch, and the F word.”
“Oh my goodness!” I gasped. Continuing to be shocked by the revelations of my seat mates, I searched for the right thing to say. “I didn’t even know those words when I was your age.”
“Well, I’ve known the word prostitute since I was four,” Middle Seat stated.
“My mom used that word when she yelled at my dad all the time. When he left, she finally told me what it meant.” She turned to Window Seat and stated plainly, “You are NOT a prostitute. I’ll tell you that much.”
We all nodded our heads in agreement.
“I read a lot. I love books,” the Window Seat said.
“Me, too,” I said.
“I could take ‘em or leave ‘em,” Middle Seat started another puzzle.
“You know,” I said, “Let me tell you a little something about words.” Window Seat raised her defeated brown eyes and looked into mine. “Words are like mirrors. They reflect what is on the inside of the person who chooses them. Not the person they are spoken to.”
Her eyes glistened. She inhaled sharply. “You’re the new girl,” I continued, “They don’t know what’s in your heart. If they did, I bet they would say words like courage, and strength. It’s hard to start your life over in a new town.”
She slowly nodded as she listened.
“Any coward can hide behind ugly, powerful words and pretend that they are mighty. I think your mom is right. You’re too good for that.”
We all sat in silence for a long time. Window Seat looked out the window, Middle Seat opened a bag of M&M’s, and I picked up my book.
“Want a few?” she asked me as she shook the bright yellow bag in front of me. “They have peanuts.”
“Sure.” She poured a few in my outstretched palm.
“You know what I think about those bullies?”
“They can go to H-E-Double toothpicks. Do you know what that means?”
“You bet I do.”