In the sky above Melbourne, special needs teacher comes to the rescue
May 1, 2016 – 3:29PM
When she first boarded Flight JQ527 from Sydney to Melbourne three weeks ago, Sophie Murphy felt an “awful tension” in the cabin.
It was 10pm on a Sunday and 180 tired, grumpy strangers were sniping and squabbling over luggage space inside the A320 Airbus.
A cabin announcement, mindful of the mood, implored the passengers to “be nice” to one another.
That’s when Murphy spotted the 14-year-old boy.
“He was perhaps 14 and had Down syndrome,” she says, sitting at home in Ashburton. “He walked onboard and he was just smiling and joyful. But he was the only one.”
The short journey after that was largely uneventful, until the cabin crew announced that they could not begin their descent. The equipment was fine. The weather was clear. So was the runway. But they could not land … because someone would not get into their seat.
“If it was a cartoon,” says Murphy, “there would have been smoke coming out of people’s ears.”
They circled the night sky above the suburbs north of Tullamarine, banking and waiting, and running low on fuel. Cabin manager John Chesson, 45, says this is when things got stressful. “Any longer and we would have to declare a fuel emergency, and then clear other aircraft out of the way. The captain was starting to get a little anxious himself.”
The problem was the little boy. He felt sick. He was laying on the floor and would not get up, not even with the help of his elderly parents or adult brother and sister.
Chesson has dealt with disruption before. He has kicked people off planes before takeoff because of drunkenness, or racial abuse, but problems in the air are different.
They call for doctors in cases of emergency, he thought. This seems like an emergency.
So he made a request over the loud speaker: “Is there a teacher on board this flight? Is there a special needs teacher on board?”
There was. Murphy, 42, is a teacher of two decades experience, including overseeing early years special education curriculum at Westbourne Grammar and Wesley College. She is now lecturing and completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne. She knew she could help.
“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.”
She found the boy in the aisle, sprawled on his stomach, facing the front of the plane. She met the family, and then lay down on her stomach to face him. “We didn’t talk about the plane, or being on the floor,” she says. “It was just teacher mode, teacher talk, teacher voice.”
She asked his name. Shamran.
She asked where he was from. New Zealand. (He had come from there that day.)
She asked his favourite book. Winnie the Pooh.
He felt sad and itchy, he said, so she held his hand and they talked about Piglet and Eeyore, and SpongeBob SquarePants, too.
Eventually they sat together. His parents cried and nodded “Thank you.” The plane was silent.
Murphy asked for sick bags then held them – one after and another and another – while he vomited, including on her. “It’s OK,” she said. “I’m your friend. We’re OK. We’re going to do this together.”
She asked for something to clean them both up, and found tissues and wipes offered from a dozen hands. The rosiness came back into his face and he grabbed his sister’s long hair and sniffed it. They looked through the window at the lights of Melbourne, and he pointed out his favourite colours.
After taxiing to the gate, the seatbelt sign dinged and no one moved – no impatient stampede to get off and get home. The passengers let Shamran and his family walk down the aisle, quietly clapping and smiling as they disembarked.
Later, a young woman approached Murphy. She said she was sitting one row back during the entire ordeal, with her husband, a doctor.
“But he didn’t know what to do. Apparently he actually sat watching, taking notes,” says Murphy. “It was just a unique experience. Parents always tell teachers about the impact they have on their child, but the acknowledgement is rarely public or broad. I just want people to know that all teachers have these amazing, incredible skills that can be called on in many settings at any time. Teachers rock.”