Dreams Take Flight  

Posted by Brock Booher

"Is it hard to be a pilot?" asks the fifth-grade boy with coke-bottle glasses.

Each year I volunteer to spend time with fifth graders as their "adopted" pilot and discuss what it's like to be a pilot, the science of flight, geography, and possible future careers. It is a labor of love, but it is definitely labor. I dress up in my uniform, with a special tie, and head to the elementary school to dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the world of aviation.

I remember when I first wanted to fly. I was in the hot summer sun hoeing weeds when a low-flying military jet came screaming by. It looked like he barely missed the trees he was so low and seemed to be outrunning the speed of sound, because I saw him before I heard the thundering roar of the engines. I leaned against my hoe with the smell of dirt lingering in my nose and watched him disappear like a shooting star. Right then I decided that flying looked easier, and more fun, than farming.

My first lesson with the fifth graders is about helping your dreams take flight. I encourage them to dream about the future; to plan for the future; to work for the future they want. I teach them them that goals not written down are just wishes, and that fate favors the prepared. I instill in them the importance of honesty, courage, and tenacity (a new word for fifth graders), and tell them they can control their destiny.

One of the smallest boys in the class said, "I want to be a football player!" Then his face fell and he looked at the floor. "My dad says there is no way I'll ever make it in the NFL." I almost cried when I heard that.

They always ask the same questions. How does a plane fly? Are you ever scared? Do pilots make lots of money? Have you ever shot down another airplane? Have you ever crashed? What's your favorite city? Were you flying on 9/11? Their inquisitive minds are eager to understand the world around them, and I do my best to give them answers that will inspire them to learn more. But I never answer their questions if they don't raise their hands.

I have my old Air Force flying helmet and a flight suit that they love to try on. The flight suit swallows them whole and the helmet flops around their small heads like a bucket. They get a kick out of my patch collection and all the charts and books that I bring to show them. It's like they can begin to see themselves growing into the capacities that the future will surely require of them. They laugh and tease each other about how loosely it all fits, but behind the laughter is excitement for becoming something they can be proud of.

They are a smart bunch and catch on to the science of flight very quickly, even though they have a hard time pronouncing "Bernoulli." I get a lot "oohs" and "aahs" when I suspend a ping pong ball in midair with a blow dryer to discuss the principles of lift, but then the mystique turns to confidence when each one of them comes up and takes a turn. Science leaps from the pages of a book when you have firsthand experience to help you understand and remember.

Much to their chagrin, I do give them homework. They have to write down some of their career goals, figure out how many miles I have flown each week, review the science of flight, and learn about a city I fly to. Each week when the teacher checks their progress, the excuses fly. My parents didn't tell me I had homework. I left my book at home. I didn't have access to a computer. I thought this was just for extra credit. Their teacher takes it all in stride, but when I reward those who were diligent in their tasks, it motivates the remainder to get the job done.

The best part about spending three days teaching fifth graders is the gratitude they display. They wave at me and call my name when they see me. They all say, "Thank You Captain Booher!" like I am the only one that believes in them. They often write me letters and color me pictures. My neighbor's chatty son points at me and says with a wink, "Great job with the lesson today."Another eager boy on the front row swoons and tells me, "You're my hero."

Is it hard to be a pilot? After four hours of standing in front of a room full of fifth graders for three weeks in a row, my voice is hoarse, my feet hurt, and my mind is mush. I feel like that tired kid on the farm all over again.

"No," I answer. "It's much harder to be a fifth-grade teacher."