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Who would think that vacation would have so much opportunity for education?

Since we were flying to Texas the week before Christmas, every seat in the plane was occupied. Squeezing out of his seat, the man in front of us exploded pieces of trash into the aisle. Another passenger picked the trash up. About 20 minutes later my children stared in amazement as the man unwittingly sent his fourth deposit of refuse crashing to the floor. This time it was a cup of ice cubes. He was apparently oblivious to the continuous dismay of his fellow passengers as we picked up his mess to protect our bags from melting ice.

The man’s elderly mother sat across the aisle from him. Every time she moved her feeble frame forward in the seat, her pillow plummeted to the floor. The woman and her apparent son didn’t notice several pillow rescues by multiple passengers where we snuck her pillow back under her head before she finished leaning back.

After rescuing her pillow this time from the ice cubes, I held it out in the aisle between them. He grabbed the pillow without as much as a nod.

“What’s up with that man, mommy?” my daughters asked.

“I’m not sure girls, but is he using any manners?” I replied.

They didn’t think he was and spent the flight waiting to see what kind of rubbish might magically appear in front of us. Throughout the flight, they weren’t disappointed. So much trash ended up in the aisle that the other passengers, the flight attendant and I gave up trying to keep things neat.

During the same four-plus-hour flight, a woman held a robust almost-2-year-old on her lap and stared blankly at the in-flight movie. Without toys or attention, her child tried to entertain herself. Three hours into the flight and two hours after the last snack, this child was bawling.

Since my kids had eaten their fill of the cereal we packed, I asked them if we could share it with the crying child. After they agreed, I walked over to the mother and asked her if her daughter would like some O’s.

The woman looked at me through cold eyes, mumbled “yeah,” snatched the bag from me and looked unsmilingly away.

Dismissed, I went back to my seat.

“Was she happy to have our cereal, mom?” asked the girls.

“I don’t think so,” I said, stunned.

“Did she at least thank us?” they asked.

I forced myself to respond.

“No, she didn’t,” I said. “I guess I am being reminded that I shouldn’t do things for recognition. But I sure wish she would have seemed thankful.”

As we left the plane, a clear attitude of entitlement and hostility seemed to come from these two distinct airline passengers. As I wondered why, I noticed their frayed, faded clothing and rudimentary luggage. These people seemed to be living in different economic circumstances from the rest of the plane’s passengers. Were they rude because they were poor people in a sea of the fairly well-off? Did being unlike other passengers make them so uncomfortable as to become hostile?

Still mulling this question in my mind, we met up with my parents. The girls were excited to tell their grandparents about the Christmas caroling we’d done with other homeschooling families just before we left. They described the residents of a local housing authority waiting in their community room to sing along with us. Other people stood outside their apartments to watch us sing. An elderly woman was too sick to leave her bed, so we went up to her third-floor apartment to carol closer to her. A kindly little woman gave us all candy for our songs and asked us to come in and see her decorations.

“Is this tree your only Christmas tree?” one of the group’s littlest children innocently asked. “It’s so small.”

“Yes, there’s not much room in here,” the gracious woman replied.

These people didn’t have many things either. Their housing was tiny. Their incomes meager, but their hearts were neither tiny nor meager. My children and I left their company full of a sense that people are people.

After hearing my children sharing their caroling joys with their grandparents, I returned to pondering the rude behavior of a couple of angry passengers on the plane. I realized the source of their dissatisfaction couldn’t, and more important shouldn’t, be assumed. There are parts of other people’s lives that no amount of schooling can teach. But their rudeness taught my children and myself that kindness should be practiced not for rewards in words or gestures, not because we feel like it and not out of guilt for what we have been blessed with, but because it’s right.

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