You find an open aisle seat in Row 14. You stow your bags and settle in. You get comfortable. And then the passenger next to you starts in with the questions:
Hi there. What's your name? Where are you headed? Is that for business or pleasure? Where do you work?
It's an issue Americans have been debating since the dawn of air travel: Do you engage in conversation with strangers on airplanes? Or do you beg off and keep to yourself, trying to carve out a tiny piece of privacy in a very public place?
Kimber Bermudez opted for the former choice on her recent Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Jacksonville, Florida, opening up to a stranger about her job and the biggest challenges she faced in it.
Her story would spark a series of acts of kindness that she can hardly believe--and that hasn't ended yet.
Full "Kimber mode."
Bermudez is a first-grade teacher at Carlos Fuentes Elementary, which is a charter school and part of the Acero network of schools near Chicago. She was flying to Jacksonville to visit her parents. About 90 percent of her school's students are low income, qualifying for free breakfast and lunch. When I talked with Bermudez this week, she sounded extremely dedicated, and seems to take immense pride in her students.
When the man on her plane asked her about her work, she told me, "I'm a talker. I went into my full 'Kimber Mode.'"
As she explained separately in a Facebook post:
"I began telling him how much I love my job. Teaching is my passion. When he asked me the greatest challenge that I face I was honest with him. I told him that working at a low-income school can be heartbreaking. We talked about the world and how no child should ever do without."
The man, who Bermudez said was traveling with his wife, was clearly moved. He said his company sometimes makes donations to causes like her school, and asked for her contact information so he could get in touch.
That would have been heartening enough, she told me. But it was only the start.
"A wad of cash."
No sooner had she given her school email address to the man than Bermudez felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned, and a man in the row behind her apologized, saying he'd been listening to her talk, and wanted to help.
"Do something amazing," Bermudez recalled him saying, as he gave her "a wad of cash," wrapped in a $100 bill.
"I thanked him and told him how I would buy my students books and give back to the community. I didn't count the money from that man, but I would later find out that he gave me $500," Bermudez said on Facebook. "Then something even more amazing happened."
As they landed in Florida, another man sitting across the aisle from her stopped her, and said he'd been listening in too.
"I don't have much money," he said, but he wanted to give her $20.
Then, yet another man in the row ahead of her turned, and handed her $10.
"My heart is in complete shock and awe right now," Bermudez wrote on Facebook. "When the world seems crazy there are always good people."
$4,800 and "amazing things."
By the time I talked with Bermudez Thursday, her story had gone viral. Her Facebook post about the incident (included below) had more than 22,000 shares. News organizations reached out. More donations started rolling in.
"So far our school has received another $4,000," she told me. "I'm just so proud and thankful. I think there are amazing things that can be done with this money."
(Update: School officials told me just before this story published that they were up to $4,800 in donations as a result of the story.)
So yes, talk to strangers on planes.
I'm often amazed at people's willingness to offer help when they're confronted with opportunities to do so. Indeed, they often need onlyto be able to see where their help is truly needed.
"I was not telling my story to solicit money," Bermudez said, adding, "I would do anything for my students, and want to thank these strangers. I don't know the name of the man who gave me the $500 or the other generous strangers, but they deserve to be recognized. I am thankful for the good people in this world."
So maybe, when someone asks you for your story, be ready to tell it--and have a little faith in humanity. You never know what good might come out of it.
Here's Bermudez's original Facebook post: