May 20



It happened on a plane.

On a plane!

I tend to board at the end when I have an assigned seat. Less time on the crowded plane feels right to me, and I rarely need overhead storage.

A bearded man next to me had the same idea. “Why spend more time on a crowded plane,” he said. “Right?”

“Right,” I agreed.

He tugged on his hearty beard. “I always arrive three hours early. Wish the TSA agents were nicer, though. It’s always stressful for me.”

I nodded. This guy was clearly a nervous flyer.

I boarded a few people ahead of him, and was surprised when I took my middle seat and he slipped into the aisle seat beside me. What were the odds? Then I realized it wasn’t the same guy, but a man with an almost identical beard.

This bearded man clearly wasn’t nervous. He was super comfortable. Comfortable enough to use the whole armrest between us and bump his elbow into me endlessly. Great. The man to my right managed the whole flight without one inadvertent bump.

            Bearded Guy’s buddy across the aisle from him was loud. And big. Big Guy joked with the flight attendant that the drink cart always bumped into his shoulder.

I could see why. The airline seat couldn’t contain his hulking frame.

My headphones went in to help drown out their constant chatter across the aisle and to take my mind off Bearded Guy’s annoying nudges every time he moved. Oh, why couldn’t I have a good old-fashioned crying baby next to me instead?

            A half-hour into the flight, Big Guy from across the aisle went to the bathroom at the back of the plane. When he returned, he had a story to tell Bearded Guy. “You have to hear this!”

I may have turned down the volume on my podcast so I could listen – always one for an intriguing story.

“You won’t believe what happened,” Big Guy said to Bearded Guy.

Bearded Guy leaned closer.

I might have leaned closer, too.

“The dude ahead of me, waiting for the bathroom, had this big beard. He turned around for like a second, and I was sure it was you.”

I had a feeling Big Guy was talking about the nervous man I’d met before boarding.

“So I thought it was you,” Big Guy reiterated. “And I grabbed the sides of his pants and pulled down, like I was going to pull down your pants.”

Bearded Guy nearly fell out of his seat from laughing so hard.

I gasped.

            “So, what happened?” Bearded Guy asks.

Yeah, what happened?

            “He turned around, and I saw it wasn’t you. Then the dude said, ‘You’re a big guy. It’s a small plane. I really don’t want to fight right now.’”

“Oh my G-d,” Bearded Guy said.

Oh my G-d, I thought.

I instantly understood it’s got to be difficult to be a guy in an eat-or-be-eaten environment. It’s got to feel impossible to be a thoughtful, sensitive guy in a culture that appears to prize brashness and winning. It’s got to be challenging to be a guy terrified to get on a plane and then, when you’re standing in line to go to the bathroom, probably because you’re so nervous, and some hulky guy grabs the sides of your pants – your pants! – and yanks.

That’s assault, I thought. He could/should be arrested!

            As the flight went on – it was several hours – Big Guy intermittently told the story to Bearded Guy again and again, like he was processing it a bit more with each telling. And each time, apparently, it got a little funnier.

By the end of the flight, both men were howling with laughter over the incident.


Because by the end, Big Guy, apparently, could view the incident only from his own limited perspective.

Grabbing my backpack so I could get off that plane and away from those men, I thought if only they had a shred of empathy. If only they could view what happened from the viewpoint of the man who had something terrible happen to him on a plane while he was standing in line to use the bathroom.

I understood how essential it is for boys to read and read and read so they can stretch their imaginations, step into others’ shoes and practice empathy.

If Big Guy had read a whole lot more, maybe he wouldn’t have laughed about causing someone discomfort and angst. Perhaps he would have even apologized.

And maybe, with enough books under his belt and in his heart, with enough empathy practice, he wouldn’t have done such a thing in the first place.



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Donna Gephart writes humorous/heartbreaking MG novels and picture books from her home in New Jersey, after spending 21 years in South Florida. In Your Shoes is her latest book about friendship, empathy, anxiety, fairy tales, grief . . . and bowling! Her next book, The Paris Project, comes out October 8th from Simon & Schuster. Donna enjoys connecting with young readers and sharing her passion for reading and writing during school visits and book festivals.–skype-visits.html