IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Ran Away From the Flight Attendant School, AKA The Charm Farm
I cannot tell you exactly why I decided to become a flight attendant. I had just graduated from the University of Michigan; I had honors, two degrees, and no idea what to do next. When I saw that This One Airlines* was hiring, I thought that a life of nomadic adventure sounded interesting.
Applying to be a flight attendant is intense, to say the least. Most applicants are eliminated after the first step. I lied my way through questions like “Do you like serving people” and “Are you a punctual person?” because I knew what they wanted to hear.
The summer before training felt like a four-month hangover. I slept a lot. I drank a lot. And I very accidentally fell in love. Somehow, I found myself staring rosy-eyed at a science-minded dude that I had only meant to sleep with once. He’d helped me split a pint of Jameson after coming to the opening night of a play I’d directed. Having sex with him seemed like the appropriate response. Unfortunately, I am not the kind of girl who can effectively pull off a one-night-stand, especially if the partner has an impressive beard and an eye for live theater.
The next part of the Flight Attendant Entrance Olympics was a video interview. I brushed my hair for the first time in June, applied lipstick that had been on sale at CVS, and waxed poetic about enlightened hospitality, how much I like traveling (true) and how deeply I love people (false). Three weeks later, I was selected for the final challenge: an in-person interview.
In late July, I woke up at four in the morning to fly first class to Dallas, Texas for a four-hour interview. An inspirational video featuring spectacular views and a theme song by Chaka Kahn was the highlight of the day. In the end, I had a job offer, tentatively granted by an exuberant woman who told me that I should celebrate by getting my eyebrows waxed.
I remember waking up on my last morning in Ann Arbor after a night of drinking so much that I’d forgotten I was leaving. When I woke up, I remembered and something deep inside of me screamed No. No. No. No. Not yet. I promise I’ll be good this time, and wake up before noon and I’ll get a real job, but I am not ready to leave this life behind yet.
The boy went to work late so we could say goodbye, aka split an omelet and stare longingly into one another’s eyes while saying nothing about anything. At the end of the day, I left him at Angell Hall and got into my car without turning around, because I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn’t leave.
On the way to training, I flew first class again. I sat next to a motivational speaker. He told me I was adventurous. He told me that he could tell that I was special -- he had a knack for these things. He prayed over me.
The eternal little sister, I spent the first week bewildered that everyone in the class didn’t immediately love me. My classmates were a diverse group, including a former pageant queen, a law school dropout, a guy who had obviously been the high school dreamboat and not much else since, and couple of people I could actually have a beer with.
At flight attendant school (affectionately nicknamed “The Charm Farm”), everything we did was monitored. We had a behavior code, and a strict a dress code. Men had to have short hair and close shaven beards. Slacks, Blazers, and Ties were required.
Both men and women had to wear a watch with a small round face and a gold, black, silver or brown strap. Our tattoos couldn’t be visible.
Women had additional requirements. Hair had to be sprayed and pulled back. No wispys. No bangs below your eyebrows. Nothing to indicate that styles had changed since 1999. Makeup was required—a red or pink lipstick, blush and mascara were “part of the uniform.” We needed close-toed Heels, 1-2 inches, black and unpolished. Pantyhose or trouser socks were an absolute necessity. So, I swapped my crop tops for trouser socks and tried to fit in.
On nights off, the boy from Ann Arbor and I spoke on the phone, texted and sent one another pictures of empty pizza boxes. He had gotten a job in a lab at our alma mater, and was on his way to getting a PhD. His new apartment had a skylight, and at night he could see the moon.
Until the early 90s, there were weight requirements for flight attendants. This was no longer the case, but O.G. flight attendants were all white girls between 5 feet and 5 feet six inches with tiny butts. Although it was no longer policy, the memory of weigh-ins still echoed in the rhetoric of some instructors.
“We measure you for your uniforms at the beginning of training,” said one class visitor, “and you don’t receive them until week six. Many find that they don’t fit into their uniforms by then. There is no weight requirement -- thank the lord! -- But just be careful, darlins’ because we only measure you once!” I tried not to roll my eyes (because eye rolling was against the rules), and ate another brownie from the snack table.
I’d asked Ann Arbor boy to try a long-distance relationship. He’d said no, said yes, said no again. We struck an agreement to keep in touch, not worry about it. Stay connected, but not together. I wrote a thousand unsent letters, offering to fly him to Paris in exchange for confirmation that he missed me. He called me drunk because the moon had made him think of me. I cried in the parking lot.
When I received my uniform, it was too long in the arms, too wide in the shoulders, and dragged on the ground. I felt like a child. Reluctantly, I modeled this lumpy look for the “Image Team,” a group of veteran flight attendants armed with AquaNet and CoverGirl. They sighed and advised higher heels so the pants wouldn’t drag on the ground.
I know where every life vest is (and isn’t) on most commercial airplanes. I know that there is an extra oxygen mask at every row of seats. It’s for flight attendants who might be caught in the aisle during decompression. The idea is that we can stumble, mask-to-mask, to a safe place, away from the gaping hole in our aircraft. I heard that the Miracle on the Hudson was basically impossible. They’ve tried to recreate it. Sully can’t do it. No one can do it. That plane should have broken into a million pieces.
On my last training flight, I went to San Francisco. There was a hilarious man on the aft galley (the main cabin kitchen). He was Cuban, and we chatted in Spanish. He told me I’d find a husband in no time -- with my blond hair and smile. When we landed, I got off the plane, saw the hills, and got back on the airplane, heading back to Dallas. My brain began to spin. What would it take to get kicked out? Spill every drink on every passenger as I served him or her? Smoke in the bathroom? Moon the first-class passengers?
I decided it was over for me. I packed all of my bags, changed my mind and got ready for class, and changed my mind again. I was going to burn all of my pantyhose. I was never shaving my legs again. I wanted my wispys back. I texted Ann Arbor boy.
hey. I quit.
Yes. I’m too young to be this unhappy.
Well, that puts an interesting spin on the day.
I’m a surprise a minute.
The woman booking my flight to Detroit flat-out told me that I was an idiot. She talked about all of the freelance work she’d done while she was a flight attendant. She had lipstick on her teeth. I looked at her office in Texas, her lipstick and oversized engagement ring, and felt better about my decision. This wasn’t for me.
Ann Arbor in late September is a far cry from sweltering Dallas, and I didn’t have jacket. It occurred to me that I was thoroughly unprepared, and maybe had been somewhat impulsive. A friend fed me baked goods and beer as I hyperventilated. She said, “It’s OK if you came back for him, but just -- admit you did. It’ll be easier when you realize that you did. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
When I met up with A2 boy at a bar downtown, I didn’t tell him I wanted to stay. I didn’t tell him I was lost and confused and scared. I didn’t tell him that I’d been so sad since we said goodbye. Over too many beers, I told the whole story like it was some kind of sitcom I’d watched, not an account of the past 75 days. I hoped he’d tell me he missed me first. He kissed me, and I took that as confirmation.
I stayed with him that night, and he promised to call after work. Of course, he didn’t. Our relationship was over. It had been over, but I gave it one last try. At his apartment a week later, I stated every reason that we should stay together, and was met with absolute silence. Not even a “no.” Just nothing. I saw the moon through the skylight and realized that it looked really small and insignificant from this vantage point. I got up.
-- Are you leaving?
-- Can’t sleep.
“Well, “ I said, putting my sweater on, “I’m in love with you. So, call me if you change your mind.”
Once I had finally said what I wanted to say without fearing the outcome, I realized why I had ditched the Charm Farm. Maybe all of the hairspray went to my head, but I had felt trapped in Dallas, in an airplane that was too small, in a life that I didn’t want.
Before that point, I didn’t know how to state exactly what I wanted or needed; I just hoped life would work itself out. Now I know that the worst thing that can happen is that the thing you want doesn’t work out, and you have to look for the next thing. And the next thing. And probably, another thing after that. Quitting training taught me three invaluable skills: I don’t get discouraged so easily. I take risks. Finally (and most profoundly), I tie a silk scarf like a total badass.