In the summer of 2006, I was heading from Cleveland, Ohio, to Minneapolis to surprise my niece for her 30th birthday. Most of my family was going to be there, but the only family member who knew I was making the trip was my nephew, Randy. (That was only because he was my ride from the airport.) When I found my assigned seat, a dark-complected young man was sitting in the aisle seat next to mine. We exchanged brief greetings as he stood to let me past him to the window seat, but a few minutes later he got up and headed to the bathroom.
“Flight attendants, prepare for departure” came through the speakers as we began to pull away from the gate. But my seat companion hadn’t returned from the restroom. To me he looked of mid-eastern descent, so my paranoia went into high gear and a debate began in my head. What do I do? Do I tell the flight attendant? Do I ignore it and leave it be? Why am I being paranoid? If I tell the flight attendant, what will that say about me stereotyping a fellow passenger because of his skin color? Out of my paranoia, fear, and shyness, I did the only safe thing I knew to do: I prayed my heart out. Lord, please ground the plane…
I just kept thinking, “If this plane goes down in flames, no one will know I’m even on this plane.” I also tried reasoning with myself. ‘Cmon, girl, get a grip. This is a small plane. It’s not worth a terrorist’s time. So calm down already! But I kept praying anyway.
Not too long after we reached the runway, the pilot informed us that we were heading back to the gate. There was a light or something indicating a problem with the plane. Thank you, Jesus! Now ground this baby! Back at the gate, we waited while they checked out whatever issue was going on. And it checked out fine. Now it was back to the runway. Rats! Once again, I was praying as hard as I could.
Up in the air and cruising for an hour or so, my prayers and fears slacked off a bit. I relaxed some and began to enjoy the rare occasion of having an empty seat next to me. I had come to the conclusion that if anything was going to happen, it would have happened by then. The rest of the flight was uneventful, thankfully. We landed and in usual fashion it was a mass standing of people as soon as the seat belt lights went blank. I looked up and there he was in the row in front of me. The young man I thought had never returned from the bathroom. How I didn’t see him move to that seat, I’ll never know.
Relief and personal embarrassment flooded over me all at once. Relief that I had been wrong in my assumptions. Even though I hadn’t embarrassed myself by saying anything to the flight attendant, I was embarrassed with myself for stereotyping someone who most likely was a very nice man. I may still laugh at myself for my stupidity, but I will always remember the lesson I learned: Don’t allow your first impressions or perceptions make a fool out of you.