How Being Stuck in an Airport is like Navigating the World of 21st Century Education




This year my school district’s Board of Education was extremely generous with our holiday break. Our students, faculty, and staff were blessed with two whole weeks to rejuvenate themselves and enjoy time with their families. Important to this story is the fact that the ability to travel to new places is something that I have a very hard time turning down if the opportunity presents itself. A two week timeframe with my building empty of its students was a travel opportunity waiting to happen, so my wife and I booked a trip to a small island off of the coast of Puerto Rico, called Vieques, with some friends for the week after Christmas. I wrapped things up at work before the holiday so that I could truly disconnect and enjoy myself, and we rang in 2014 in the Caribbean. It was a wonderful trip. We relaxed, we ate, and we snorkeled. We did all of the things your supposed to do when taking a beach vacation in December. We were in charge of making the trip what we wanted it to be. Unfortunately all of that came to a screeching halt thanks to the onset of the first widespread blizzard of the season coupled with the slow, ultra-laid back island attitude of a non-secure airport the size of your local pharmacy.

As we waited for what was supposed to be the easiest leg of our return trip to Upstate New York, our 9-seater, 25 minute Cessna flight from Vieques to San Jaun, Puerto Rico, it became increasingly clear that we may be stuck indefinitely. The planes, our only available mode of transport off of the island, had stopped showing up. Apparently Cessna’s don’t fly when it rains, and while it was snowing in the Northeast, it was raining on our last day in paradise. This rain, a truly astounding lack of communication from the airline staff at the Vieques airport to the 30 or so passengers waiting for an outbound flight, and the Northeast blizzard were a domino effect of Murphy’s Law. Additionally, our Delta flight out of San Juan to JFK airport in New York had been delayed with the potential of being cancelled just in case we needed another layer of stress added to our lives. At that point it looked like even if we got off of the island we may be stuck in San Juan indefinitely since all information coming in suggested that no flights were available to NYC until at least Tuesday. However, nobody really knew what to do because airline employees on the ground had no information, while calling the airline offices got us non-information information. I was handed gems such as “I can’t really make any guarantees, sir.” Or “Right now your plane is supposed to arrive at 7:55.” Let it be noted that when I was on the phone with the rep it was 7:50, and no plane had yet left San Juan for Vieques.

Hunkering down to await our fate as the scenario unfolded, a first for me and my travel partners, I watched four types of people emerge:

1) The Infuriated Shouter: This individual started out calm, professional, and at the front of the pack. She just wants some information. When are the planes coming? How will she make her connecting flight (the same connecting flight most of us were waiting for)? How can they not know? Is this a professional operation or isn’t it? Is anybody actually in charge here?! As the questions continued her true colors emerged. First, the pacing started, then the mumbling to herself, followed quickly by the waving of hands in the air, the statements about how she had important things to do at work on Monday, and finally the profanities. Oh the profanities. Also, this was the self-proclaimed worse thing that had ever happened to her, and it had now tainted her entire visit to Vieques. She would never be back, and that was a promise. This inconvenience at the tail-end of the trip had now defined her whole experience.

2) The Seasoned Veterans: This couple had seen this all before. After all, the same thing had happened to them during Hurricane Sandy when they had tried to get back to New York but ended up stuck in Chicago for an extra week. They made the best of it then, in her brother’s apartment. Things would work out this time, too. Their approach was that nothing could be done, the airlines were not going to help us, and we should all just sit down, relax, and get ready to spend some time getting to know each other on the uncomfortable plastic chairs downstairs. After all, it was going to be a long night. They sat on their laptop and edited photos while randomly checking flight statuses on their mobile devices and nonchalantly idling nearby whenever one of the two airline employees made a semi-informed announcement.

3) The Scramblers: These folks WERE NOT going to be thwarted by delays or weather. They embrace a challenge. They had their smartphones, an internet connection, and apparently an endless amount of patience for sitting on hold. They would find a way to get off this island if it was the last thing they were going to do. Wasn’t there a ferry that runs a couple of times back to the mainland? How about chartering our own plane? There are enough of us here who would be willing to pay, right? No corporate machine was going to stand in their way. Once they had information they squirreled it away only to be shared with those whom they deemed worthy, typically other scramblers.

4) The Communicators: These folks just wanted information so that they could come up with a plan and next steps. It seemed like there was still a chance that we would get off of the island if the rain stopped, and our Delta flight was still a couple of hours delayed. What happens then? Will the airline radio ahead and ask Delta to hold the plane? And what happens if we get stuck here? Can anyone suggest places that may be willing to put us up for the night so that we can take the ferry in the morning? They were the scenario creators and the relationship builders. They introduced themselves to the other passengers. They also understood that the people working behind the desk were only human, and one of the two of them also needed to get off of the island since he wasn’t an actual resident. They were just as stressed as everyone else, but they used their energy to be prepared for multiple outcomes.

In the end, we made it through. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it felt like a bit of a miracle. With approximately an hour and 20 minutes before our connecting flight left San Juan, two Cessna’s showed up to usher us off of Vieques and back to mainland Puerto Rico, and I am writing this from the comfort of my home in chilly Upstate New York. It was definitely not the smoothest exit from a relaxing week of vaction, and I am now left considering if winter travel as a Northeast US resident is worth the potential headache. There are many unknowns, and I don’t always do well with unpredictability (something I will continue to work on in 2014). Of course, I realized things could have gone much worse as I surveyed the hundreds of people camped out in JFK airport as we disembarked from our Delta flight, some with infants and toddlers. There were casualties along the way as there sometimes are, namely each of our checked bags never made it to New York and are still MIA at time of publishing. And we were tired and smelly for sure. But we had weathered the storm, so to speak, and now I have this story as a souvenir.

You may want to know what my point is. How does this relate to life in education? I’m going to let you jump to your own conclusiuons there. You tell me. Let’s have a discussion. We live in a time of great change within the educational field. There are numerous things that are rocketing us forward in our ability to reach students and help them own their personal learning experience. We are connected as educators through the wide world of social media, and we constantly strive to be better at what we do. Sometimes we work in an echo chamber of people, both educators and non-educators, telling us how bad everything is without offering solutions. There are roadblocks, speed bumps, and inconvenient situations that we must deal with along the way. How we deal with these challenges defines our place in driving change. It defines how we approach the next challenge, and it helps us to figure out if all of this is really worth it.

I know I’m never going to stop traveling, and I’ll tell every blizzard in the place that I said so. How about you?