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Traveling on an airplane can be a grueling task even in the best of circumstances, which is why when Sophie Murphy boarded a recent flight from Sydney to Melbourne and noticed an "awful tension" in the cabin, she first chalked it up to typical cranky passengers. But as the flight neared its end, it became obvious that something was very wrong.
A teenage boy with Down syndrome who was traveling with his family had become upset and would not return to his seat, despite the cabin crew's warnings over the loudspeaker that it was almost time to land. The pilot was forced to circle above the airport, delaying the landing--and angering people on the already tense flight.
"If it was a cartoon," remembered Murphy, "there would have been smoke coming out of people's ears."
As the boy's elderly parents and adult siblings tried to coax him off the floor and back into his seat to no avail, Murphy, 42-- who had been a teacher for more than 20 years and was now completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne--stood up and quickly headed to the back of the plane.
She found the boy in the aisle, sprawled on his belly, and lay down on her stomach to face him. She began chatting calmly with him, asking his name, his favorite book, and his favorite characters. He told her he felt sick and itchy, and she tried to comfort him.
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"We didn't talk about the plane, or being on the floor," she says. "It was just teacher mode, teacher talk, teacher voice."
Minutes later, he allowed her to hold his hand--and then together they got properly back into airplane seats. Murphy asked for sick bags, and held them as the boy threw up several times, including on her. As she helped him clean up, she repeatedly told him everything would be okay and that they'd get through it together.
After the plane was finally able to land, there was no impatient stampede off the flight as one might expect. Instead, calmed passengers--obviously following Murphy's amazing example--allowed the boy and his family to depart first, smiling at them as they passed. His parents tearfully thanked Murphy for what she had done, and a doctor sitting nearby also let her know he had even taken notes on her expert way of handling the situation.
"Teachers get such a bad rap," she says. "I was proud to go back there, knowing I could help. This is what every single teacher does, every single day."
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