Much of life is determined by chance, much by choice.
By chance, I forgot to check into my flight to Seattle last weekend. So, I was in the last group of passengers allowed to board the plane, which severely limited my choice of seats.
If you’ve ever flown on Southwest Airlines, you know that when you check-in online 24 hours before your flight, you are given a number—1 through 60 in the A, B, or C group. That number and letter combination represents your place in line to choose your seat. I fly many times a year and have developed a strategy for each boarding group. In the C Group, although you are a definitely a loser who is going to be stuck with a middle seat and there is probably no more room in the overhead bin for your carry-on, at least you get to pick your poison.
You know what you’re getting into because your fellow travelers have already sat down. My advice is to look for skinny people, elderly women who don’t look chatty. Mostly avoid older men in tropical shirts who look like they are on business trips because even if they won’t hit on you—which they probably will—they will still try to impart words of wisdom upon you, and really, you just want to read your book on Urban Homesteading because you totally could raise chickens in your backyard too and that might relieve your feeling of impending doom. I digress. Anyway, the point is, in the C group, you have a choice.
On this particular flight, my boarding number was C45 and as I boarded the plane I was surprised to see an empty middle seat in the second row of the plane next to a very non-threatening, tiny woman in her sixties. I couldn’t immediately understand why such a prime seat so close to the exit was left un-sat. As I walked down the narrow aisle, I saw the reason sitting in seat 2C, a short blond boy with big front teeth, long eyelashes, and a large blue nametag hanging around his neck. An unaccompanied minor. I thought to myself, I can handle this; kids love me. And so, I unknowingly sat down next the extraordinary Evan Kite of Kentucky.
As I’m getting settled, I pull out my phone to send one more “I love you” to my boyfriend and Evan leans over and says ominously, “Oh no, you only have 20% battery left. My Game Boy has 50% and that lasts me about two hours.”
“Well,” I respond, “what are you going to do the rest of the time?”
“Oh, I don’t need my Game Boy at all. I’m going to spend the whole flight talking to you. Have you been to Seattle in the last eight years?”
“Yes, I went with my family a few years ago.”
“Hmm, I’m surprised I haven’t seen you. I go there twice a year to visit my dad. My parents are divorced but my mom still loves my dad.”
We are interrupted by the flight attendant, who comes over to personally tell Evan what to do if the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. She talks to him like he is half his age and a little deaf. Talking to a ten-year-old like he is five is very, very insulting. Evan listens patiently and mumbles a quiet, “Okay.” As she walks away, he rolls his eyes and whispers to me, “I’m not stupid. I would have figured it out eventually.” And I guess that’s what we all think, Evan. If the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, we’ll figure it out eventually because no one is really listening to the flight attendants.
“People don’t realize how smart I am. I love math. My first dream job is a scientist. My second an engineer and my third is a comedy guy. I memorized a whole book of jokes. 101 Christian Jokes for Kids! I’ll tell you some of them. All if we have time.”
He did tell me one. It went something like, “What did Noah say to all the people who had laughed at him while he was building the Ark? <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Nothing, because they were all dead.”
Evan rummages through his backpack and produces two packages of fruit snacks that he eats in one chewy, dripping mouthful. He offers me a Lemon Head. I decline. He laughs at me, not understanding why anyone would turn down candy. “Do you need a comic book for the flight?” he asks. I thank him, but again decline.
A mischievous grin flashes across Evan’s face. “Now, to do the thing I’m not supposed to do, read my mom’s note for my dad!” He pulls an envelope out of his bag. It says, “To Evan’s other mom and dad, from Nicole” in cursive. I immediately feel like we’re going to get in trouble.
“Are you sure you should do that?” I ask.
“I always read their notes then I close them again. Rats! This one’s in cursive. I can’t read cursive. Will you read it to me?”
So then I have this dilemma, do I read the kid his mom’s note or do I respect his mother’s wishes because I’m a grown-up now? Why do these things keep happening to me? Unsurprisingly, I side with the kid— I’m an accomplice now, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong. The note is boring, mostly about having Evan call on Saturdays and do his summer reading. Evan, disappointed by the lackluster contents, closes the envelope, which definitely now looks like it has been opened, and downs ten more Lemon Heads.
I had seen that his mom was pregnant as she waved goodbye to him from the gate, so I prompt him, “I see you are going to be a big brother.”
“Well, I already am a big brother, to Sam. He’s five. He lives in Kentucky with me. I’m going to have a sister, Lily.”
“Oh, why isn’t Sam going with you to see your dad?”
“That’s not his dad. His dad is John. He lives close to us.”
I’m now beginning to let my curiosity get the best of me so I have to ask, “So, is your mom remarried now?”
“No, Lily’s dad is Mark. He’s a soldier, but three weeks ago he decided he wasn’t really ready to be a dad.” He says this with a learned sarcasm. Like someone trying out a new word or catchphrase to see if they can pull it off. He definitely can. He tells me that his mom used to work in a nursing home, but one of the residents fell on her and she couldn’t keep working there while she’s pregnant so now she works nights at Burger King.
“I’m proud of my mom and all, but I’m going to do something different when I grow up,” he says defiantly. “Kids make fun of me, because I’m a slow reader, but I’m going to do something pretty great I think.”
The rest of the flight goes on like this, story after joke after quip. I don’t sleep for four hours and he talks very nearly the whole way about school and his friends and what the world will be like when he’s in high school. He asks to be pen pals, so I give him my e-mail. He doesn’t have e-mail, but he hopes to have it someday. I walk him off the plane and the flight attendants thank me for looking after him and reminding him to use his inside voice. We say goodbye and he walks away with his dad.
Part of me felt really bad for him, and not because he’s probably poor and he has all these different men wandering through his life who aren’t really ready to be men. I felt bad for him because no one wanted to sit next to him. The miracle of flight! Mankind and the Wright Brothers and Boeing have created this completely unnatural, sterile experience where you must sit still and be quiet and not touch anything or talk to anyone for four hours and we act like it’s a perfectly normal thing to ask of people. Animals don’t do that. It is not in our nature to be polite and compact and read <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>SkyMall for hours on end. It’s a made-up thing, a grown-up thing. Only grown-ups pretend to be invisible. And these grown-ups in Evan’s world, his parents, have created a life for him that involves 4-hour stints where he must be alone in this speeding projectile of adult expectations. Strangers who expect, nay demand, that he be still and quiet and invisible. But he’s not still and he’s way too friendly and, although he’s only 64 pounds (he told me), he’s not invisible.
But I also admired the hell out of him. He’s obviously bright and strange and the world, despite its best efforts, hasn’t beat that out of him yet. And maybe it will eventually. Maybe one day he’ll be a grown-up who doesn’t remember how extraordinary he once was. Maybe he’ll sit quietly on a plane going somewhere boring to do something perfectly ordinary. Maybe he’ll become invisible, like the rest of us. Maybe he’ll look back and resent his fractured childhood and hate his parents and feel cheated somehow. And that’s why I wanted to write about him now. We read these inspiring profiles of people who grow up to do extraordinary things, but after meeting Evan I was reminded that there are children all around us doing nothing at all and yet being perfectly, joyfully extraordinary. So next time there’s an empty seat on a plane next to a small person, take a chance, make a choice and sit down next to him. Of course they might be awful, lots of kids suck. Lots of kids are truly, truly terrible. But you know, that’s what gambling is all about. Sometimes you lose; sometimes you win really big.