Imagine your happy place. Now, imagine that in order to get to your happy place, you first have to sit next to a screaming toddler in economy class on American Airlines for a few hours.
We've seen this kind of thing happen a lot lately--with bad results and viral videos. There's the New York state employee who reportedly yelled at a baby on a Delta flight and lost her job (at least temporarily) as a result. There's the flight attendant who simply kicked a passenger and a fussy toddler off a plane.
And there's the guy whose response was to record a video of a screaming child on a flight, post it to YouTube, and bask in the social-media notoriety.
But perhaps there's another way to respond. (One example: a teenager on a recent cross-country flight who volunteered as a sign language interpreter for a passenger who was both blind and deaf.)
Now, a passenger on American Airlines who chose kindness recently went viral himself as a result.
Meet Todd Walker, a father of two who just celebrated 30 years with his employer, and who flies as often as four times a month from Kansas City to North Carolina for work.
He boarded an American Airlines flight on that route recently, getting seat 33A toward the back of the plane, only to find that the passengers sitting next to him were a mom named Jessica Rudeen, and her two kids: 4-month-old Alexander on her lap and 3-year-old Caroline.
After some chaos in the boarding area, Rudeen hadn't had a chance to feed her son, and he started reacting the way hungry 4-month-olds are known to do. Then, her 3-year-old daughter changed her mind about the whole idea of flying.
That meant Walker was about to get what we might call "whole toddler experience." I'll let Rudeen herself describe the maelstrom, as she did in a post (embedded at the end of this article):
My 3-year-old, who was excited before boarding the plane, lost her nerve and began screaming and kicking, 'I want to get off the plane! I don't want to go!' I honestly thought we'd get kicked off the plane. So with two kids losing their minds, I was desperately trying to calm the situation.
Walker responded in a way that seemed completely unremarkable to him, he told me in a phone conversation this weekend. He just decided to help. As Rudeen explained further, Walker...
reached for the baby and held him while I forced a seatbelt on Caroline, got her tablet, and started her movie. Once she was settled and relatively calmed, he distracted her so that I could feed Alexander. Finally, while we were taxiing, the back of the plane no longer had screams. During the flight, he colored and watched a movie with Caroline, he engaged in conversation and showed her all the things outside.
By the end of the flight, he was Caroline's best friend. I'm not sure if he caught the kiss she landed on his shoulder while they were looking out the window.
Walker also was on the same connecting flight in Charlotte that Rudeen planned to take. He walked her daughter through the terminal to the new gate, and then asked to have his seat reassigned so he could sit next to the family and help out on the second flight, too.
I talked with both Walker and Rudeen this weekend, after Rudeen's Instagram/Facebook post--which she originally put up because she hadn't gotten Walker's last name or contact information and wanted to connect with him again--got so much traction. As of this writing, it has more than 5,000 shares, and has been featured in media around the world.
The Walker and Rudeen families say they think their meeting was a result of divine intervention, and that they plan to meet again next month.
"I wasn't expecting it to get to places like Brazil or Ireland or Australia or the U.K.," Rudeen told me. "I'm just a stay-at-home mom in northwest Arkansas. But I'm glad that it highlights the importance of what it means to be kind."
Walker said he hadn't thought his conduct had been a big deal, either, but he welcomes the attention if it inspires other people to offer help or to notice kindness around them.
"When I walked away in Wilmington, I never thought I'd hear from or see them again," he said, reiterating that it hadn't seemed like a big deal to him to respond to the family with kindness.
He also praised Rudeen for being willing to admit she could use the assistance, even in a world where people often have good reason to be wary of strangers. "Part of the reason this worked is that Jessica was willing to accept the help. That's not always the case today, and I get it."
Here's Jessica Rudeen's Facebook post: