row of yellow school busses parked in a lineThere’s no substitute for the school of life. Everyone is enrolled, like it or not. But we should like it. It’s the finest education money can’t buy.

Life gives us lessons everyday. Whether we choose to learn something from them is a different story. I do try to learn, although I need remedial courses on occasion, reminders on how to mine precious gems of wisdom from the dirt and debris of a situation. But once I discover that gem, I carry it with me as a reminder to make different choices in the future.

I have numerous lessons to share from fumbling through my own life, but I want to relay one in particular as it still gets airplay around our house.

Here’s what happened:

Many years ago, my family and I were visiting in-laws in West Chester, PA. I’d learned the American Helicopter Museum was nearby so my 3-year-old son, John, and I went to check it out. John is the son in Make the Leap who was fascinated with the television show Jay Jay the Jet Plane and flight in general. I was still a student pilot at this point and thought the museum would be a great visit for us both.

The museum was offering helicopter rides that day, a movie stunt pilot flying eager passengers. John and I stood at a distance as the pilot swooped in to exchange riders before lifting into the sky to zoom off again. The noise was deafening. I imagined how the strong vibrations we could feel so far away would change to violent thuds if we joined the waiting line near the landing pad.

“Want to go on a helicopter ride, John?” I asked, testing the waters while looking down at this toddler next to me, his arm stretched high where his hand disappeared into my own. He looked up with deep blue eyes and nodded, head bobbing twice in slow motion. I crouched, forearm to knee, so I could look directly into his eyes to decipher if he understood the question.

“Are you sure?”

Another two nods.

I was excited. If we could get past the ferocious roar of the helicopter blades, if I could get him inside and buckled into the harness without him freaking out, I knew he would love that ride. He would love the fact he was flying just like Jay Jay the Jet Plane and his buddy, Herky the Helicopter.

Still, I tempered my enthusiasm. When we approached the counter inside the memorabilia store where they sold the helicopter ride tickets, I leaned in close to the woman behind the register and asked if I could get a refund on the tickets if a certain someone decided he wanted to abort? She stretched far over the counter and peered down at John.

“You going for a helicopter ride?” she asked him.

Two more slow nods.

She leaned back up and smiled. “Of course.”

Back outside, I waited until the bird departed before joining the line. We’d have to wait a couple of rotations before our turn, plenty of time to back out. The helicopter buzzed in and out, loading up passengers each time while the blades pounded overhead. John watched, eyes widening, still holding my hand as we advanced. As the pilot loaded the passengers before us, we took our place at the front of the line. I squatted one last time as the helicopter revved up, preparing to leap into the sky.

“You still want to do this?” I shouted. He swiveled his head toward the helo, eyes following the take off, then turned back with two last nods. I still contained my excitement. We weren’t aboard yet. Anything could happen.

But once we climbed in, with John strapped into his seat next to me in the rear of the helicopter, we lifted off and I cheered inside, thrilled he would experience the magic of flying, excited he’d see the earth from the sky. I knew he’d love flying once the ground dropped away. I knew he’d display that bubbly emotion he’d shown while watching Jay Jay on television. I just knew his excitement would burst forth once we soared through the air.

I was wrong.

As we flew, I watched him peer out, his hands on the thighs legs that shot straight out from the seat because they were too short to hang down from the edge. A vibrant world moved past his stoic face, and I grew concerned. What thoughts sifted through his head? Perhaps he didn’t understand we were flying, or maybe his dull stare hid sheer fright. Had I wasted a good chunk of money to bore him inside the flying contraption when I could have thrilled him by dropping a quarter in a bouncy ride outside the grocery store? I didn’t know.

As the flight drew to an end, and the pilot turned back to the museum giving us a both a view of the opposite direction, disappointment set in. Maybe he didn’t like flying as much as I did? Maybe he just liked the Jay Jay characters because they were colorful and cute and the attraction had nothing to do with flying.

Without much time left in the flight, I relaxed and enjoyed it myself. At least he’d been brave, hadn’t started screaming in the air. Looking straight through the cockpit glass from between the front seats, I saw a school move toward us, its buses parked in long rows outside like yellow waves rolling in. John looked straight down, hands on legs, thinking whatever thoughts he called his own.

Suddenly, he raised his hands and pressed them hard on the window, his forehead following.

“Bus! Bus! Bus! Bus!” He shouted as his head swiveled to follow the yellow sea school buses flowing beneath. The pilot and I roared with laughter as John spun toward me with a huge, open-mouthed grin. He turned to plop his forehead back on the window and watch the school and its joyful buses disappear from sight.

As we climbed down from the helicopter, John still grinning, my school of life lesson leapt out at me much as the buses had leapt out to John. My expectations had gotten the best of me. I’d wanted something for my son more than he’d wanted it for himself. There was nothing wrong with wanting a good experience for my son. But what I learned that day, is we often want something to play out just the way we imagine it in our heads, when we should focus on the end result instead. I’d wanted my son to have a great time because we were flying. What I should have wanted for him was a great time period, no matter how it transpired. And he did have a great time, because he’d never seen so many buses—another favorite mode of transportation—in one place.

How often do we hold the how in our heads instead of the what? The exact how, is often not in our control.

Looking back, I received a true gift that day. Not only did I learn a valuable lesson in expectations, and John did have a great time, I carried away a favorite memory of his toddler years. I tell that story often at home, acting out how serious John was in the helicopter as he watched the ground slide below. Then I’ll burst out with “Bus! Bus! Bus! Bus!”

It still pays off. Our youngest, Cort, now 6, gets as big a kick from the story as John does. After the finale, Cort will slide off the kitchen island and run in circles yelling, “Bus! Bus! Bus! Bus!” while John laughs. Cort then climbs up with a familiar, open-mouthed grin. He’ll rest his tiny forearms on the counter and say the same thing every time:

“Tell it again, Dad.”

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