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Things I’ve Learned in the “University of the Sky”

People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting college and graduate degrees. For the grand total cost of zero dollars, I have learned hundreds of valuable lessons in what I like to call “The University of the Sky,” aka, working as a flight attendant.

In addition to a regular paycheck and decent benefits, I get a free education about all things pertaining to air travel. Classes meet for about 40 hours each week, there are no examinations, and the “campus” is above the clouds. What can you learn at this unusual university? Here’s a short list:

People are unpredictable: Every time I think I have things figured out, someone surprises me by being unusually helpful, consoling, kind or just plain noble. Some days, I come to work feeling down and wondering if I chose the right career path. It is invariably those days when I meet a passenger or a new coworker who changes my attitude for the better.

For example, a recent “down day” for me began when I boarded a New York to London flight. I had had a terrible week, just returned from a two-day illness and was upset that I would be missing a family event due to my work schedule.

On the flight was a little boy, about five years old, who asked me to play a game of tic-tac-toe with him. In between serving passengers, I’d stop by his seat and play for a minute at a time. We completed several entire games this way and the boy’s parents were elated that I was paying attention to him. He seemed elated as well. When I had a short break, I chatted with him and his parents quietly. They were seated in the rear cabin area so we had a bit of privacy. While the child slept, mom and dad told me they were headed to a hospital in London that specializes in the kind of brain tumor the boy had. Chances were about 50-50 that he would make it to his sixth birthday.

My own worries immediately disappeared as I said a prayer for the boy and encouraged his parents. I gave them my airline email address and a few weeks later they informed me that the child’s treatment had been a complete success.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own difficulties. It’s also easy to realize how lucky we are when faced with someone who has very serious life challenges.

Kindness begets kindness: Working on an air crew is, in essence, a customer service job. Most people are happy when they’re flying, but there are some who are just plain cranky. I have encountered all levels of anger in my years of being a flight attendant. The big takeaway for me is that in 99 percent of encounters with angry people, being kind to them defuses the situation. Human beings, no matter how