I was on a plane from Atlanta to California several years ago. Such a long stretch in an airplane is, in my opinion, the perfect setting to work on the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle; this menace usually takes several sessions to complete, so I was happy to have many hours to fill with something I really enjoy.

Chana Shapiro

I sat with the page on my tray. Next to me was a young woman who was using the long flight to catch up on her sewing – button-replacing to be exact. We nodded and smiled encouragement from time to time, acknowledging that we were both assiduous “workers,” pursuing our very different tasks.

I smugly noted to myself that her work was physical, almost automatic, whereas mine was challenging and intellectual. At one point, to emphasize the herculean nature of my task, I mentioned offhandedly:

“This is the Friday New York Times puzzle. It’s really tricky!”

“I can see that!” she answered, with appropriate admiration.

Her veneration seemed so genuine that I didn’t have to subtly let her know I’m a seasoned English teacher and I know boatloads of hard words (like “veneration”).

After a couple of hours, the woman leaned back in her seat. She had deftly replaced scores of buttons and even darned and hemmed at least one of them. She put her work away, gathered her scissors, thread and needles into a little etui (see, I told you I know a lot of nifty words) and stowed everything neatly in a canvas bag.

I smiled ruefully. Her work was easy, mine was hard, and that’s why she finished before me.

At the time, I was only half-way through the maddening puzzle, which was filled with double-entendres, puns and trendy jargon. Having started, though, I didn’t want to give up, especially in front of my seatmate who had finished with time to spare.

But stop I did: After another hour of frustration, I folded the newspaper and slid it into my own carry-on.

Maybe a bit of socialization would unlock my mind, I thought. I addressed the woman beside me:

“You were really doing a lot of sewing!”

What a great conversation opener, I thought sarcastically, but she smiled and turned toward me.

“I always take work with me,” she answered. “All my sisters and cousins learned to sew when we were kids. My grandmother taught us. We’re all good at real dressmaking, but I relax by sewing on buttons.”

“I hate sewing on buttons!” I exclaimed. “It’s no use, anyway, because they always come off again.”

“That’s because you don’t know the tricks!” she laughed. “I’ll show you.”

She pulled out one of the shirts she’d just fixed, took out her little embroidery scissors, snipped off one of the buttons, laid the work in front of me and sewed it back on. I watched carefully as she explained the right way to do it.

Then, she cut off another button and mentored my slow and deliberate attempt. I did it right the first time, and I felt like I’d climbed Mt. Everest. Sewing a button correctly is just plain useful, and I’d worked with my hands; as a result, I felt smarter.

Interesting.

Unfortunately, the plane landed before I learned how to properly put in a hem, but I’ll tell you this: There isn’t a button in this house that will come loose in the next decade! Which reminds me…

Back in the Old Country (St. Louis), I used to take walks with my father. One of our neighbors, Mr. James, was a real country fellow, with the rough clothing and Ozark accent to prove it.

I could hardly understand him when he greeted us, but my father always chose the route past his house and enjoyed talking to him. My father liked him, but I didn’t get it; not only did I feel sorry for this poor bumpkin, but I also disapproved of him.

He smelled bad, he didn’t have laces in his shoes, and he chewed tobacco.

“Pay attention to Mr. James,” my father advised me. “He knows how to do things.”

This advice came back around one seemingly disastrous day (as you might expect). I had just bought an old car and was about to take my mother to the grocery store, but the car wouldn’t start. Then, while I was trying to figure out what to do, my mother decided to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine, and it began to leak all over the kitchen floor.

“Go get Mr. James!” my mother hollered, her arms full of the rags she was using to sop up the water.

I didn’t want to be anywhere near our neighbor, but I ran. Mr. James was home – no surprise, he always was – and he limped to our house.

First, he pulled the washing machine away from the wall, laughed and re-attached the hose, which had somehow come out of the wall. Then we went outside, where Mr. James opened the hood, checked this and that while I tried to start it and then went home to get his truck.

I tried not to inhale as he made me stand close to watch him attach jumper cables. Then he got me to do it myself, and together, we got my car started.

That day I learned three lessons: First, if the washing machine overflows, check the hose before you call a repairman; second, always carry a set of jumper cables in your car; and third, don’t be a snob.

Sure, I was headed toward a university scholarship, but practical knowledge? I knew bupkis.

Pirke Avot, The Sayings of Our Fathers (Sages), teaches us: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”

By nature and nurture, I love the classics, adore art and appreciate music. At the same time I’m blessed – and forced – by unforeseen circumstances that keep broadening my “learning” in the never-ending process of becoming “wise.”

BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT COLUMNIST

Editor’s note: Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.