row of yellow school busses parked in a lineThere’s no substitute for the school of life. Each of us is enrolled, like it or not. But we should like it. It’s the finest education money can’t buy. Heck, it’s the finest education available even when compared to the ones money can buy.

Everyday we receive lessons. Whether we choose to learn something from them is a different story. I do strive to learn something, although I need a remedial course on occasion, a lesson in how to mine a precious gem of wisdom from the dirt and debris of a situation. But once I discover that gem, I stick it in my pocket as a reminder to make different choices in the future.

There are numerous lessons to share from fumbling through my own school of life, but I thought I’d relay one in particular as it gets a bit of airplay around our house from time to time.

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.

That particular day, the museum offered helicopter rides, a movie stunt pilot flying eager passengers. John and I watched from a distance as he swooped in to exchange riders before throttling the rotors up to lift into the sky and zoom off again. Six people waited for turns from behind a rope placed close to the landing pad. Even though John and I watched from a distance, the noise was deafening. I could barely imagine the effect of standing in line so near the helicopter, how the vibrations we felt so far away would change to violent thuds in our chest if we joined the line. I knew it was a long shot, but I tested the waters anyway.

“Want to go on a helicopter ride, John?” I asked, looking down at this toddler next to me, his arm stretched high where his hand disappeared into my own. He looked up at me with liquid blue eyes he didn’t get from me—this kid looks just like his mother in every way—and nodded, head bobbing up and down 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 losing it, he would love that ride, because he would love the fact he was flying just like Jay Jay the Jet Plane and his buddy, Herky the Helicopter. But 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 smiled, leaned back up, and said, “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, get a view of 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 of his stubby legs that shot straight out from the seat because they were too small for his knees to reach the edge and hang down. 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 belied the sheer fright he felt. Had I wasted a good chunk of money to bore him inside that flying contraption, when I could have thrilled him by dropping a quarter in the bouncy ride outside the grocery store? I didn’t know. But 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.

There wasn’t much time left in the flight, so 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 vast rows outside like yellow waves rolling in. John still looked straight down, hands on legs, thinking whatever thoughts he called his own.

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

“Bus! Bus! Bus! Bus!” He shouted as his head followed the sea of yellow rippling beneath our right side. 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 magnificent 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 at John. My expectations had gotten the best of me. I’d wanted something for my son, more than he’d wanted it for himself. But then again, there was nothing wrong with wanting a good experience for my son. 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 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, not only did John have a great time, but I carried away my 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 until suddenly, 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 stool at the kitchen island and run in circles yelling, “Bus! Bus! Bus! Bus!” while John laughs. Cort then climbs back on the stool 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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