Carlie stared down at her desktop. The classroom bustled around her as books were passed out and the assignment written down. She looked blankly at the book in front of her. Little Princess. She didn’t bother writing down the chapters assigned. Wasn’t this a kid’s book? What was the point of reading a story about some cute little girl who turned out to be a princess after all? That was just like her teacher – a pretty, petite, pleasant lady who believed in happy endings.
Happy endings? Not for me, Carlie thought. Maybe for somebody else, but not me. No, for me there is just endless ridicule, emptiness. Pointlessness – a word full of nothingness. Her thoughts ran dismally on as the class was dismissed and she tucked the book in her backpack.
At home, the evening was the usual yelling and chaos. Her dad came home tired and frustrated and he took it out on her and her brother. They were always in his way, too noisy, too clumsy, too lazy. Nothing was right or soon enough or to his liking. Her mom would leave dinner on the stove before she left for her late shift. Carlie and her brother would eat, their dad would eat later. They never sat at the table together, never talked and laughed about their days. Their only connection would be an accidental meeting in the hall, or when he came into their rooms to yell at them.
Late that night, with the house settled in quiet, Carlie tucked herself into the corner of her bed with pillows. Her lamp on the night stand glowed softly, the lavender candle flickered reflections onto the ceiling. She picked up the Little Princess and thumbed through it. A phrase caught her attention. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in a cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” She skimmed ahead another page until another line caught her eye. “’A princess must be polite,’ she said to herself. And so when the servants, taking their tone from their mistress were insolent and ordered her about, she would hold her head erect and reply to them with a quaint civility which often made them stare at her.” Quaint idea – polite, elegance under scorn, but not realistic, Carlie thought.
She thumbed back toward the beginning. Why did these sentences jump out at her? “It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.” Behave like a princess? What did that mean? What princess ever had to deal with the ridicule and scorn and shame she was dished every day from the people in her own family? Her image of a princess was more of a spoiled, demanding, the-world-and-everyone-in-it-belongs-to-me kind of an attitude.
She began the book and read until early in the morning. The candle sputtered, distracted her from the book. She turned out the light, and thought quietly until she drifted off to sleep.
In class the next day, Carlie’s teacher focused her lesson on the clash of the cultures between England and India. Carlie had read half of the book, but hadn’t written the assignment answers. She heard twitterings about the outdated customs and culture. Had they all missed the point about the people and how they each dealt with life? Maybe she understood more because she had read ahead.
At her desk at home she quickly wrote out the homework questions. The who and what and when responses were easy. Harder, were the why questions. Why did Sarah respond that way? Why did Miss Minchkin despise her?
Fascinated by Sarah’s plight and her response to her struggles, Carlie jotted down the words Sarah used to help her overcome: polite, generous, quiet, heart always full, kind, sweet, self-controlled, calm, dignified, cheerful, patient – she added a few of her own interpretations: elegant, gracious, regal, dignity.
Carlie’s father burst in the door, yelling and storming about the dishes left undone. She had left them, waiting until her dad finished his dinner. Quietly, calmly and almost sweetly, Carlie stood up and started toward the kitchen. Inside, she was seething at the interruption, but at least she had controlled her tongue. Pretending to be a princess was very hard work. Dishes were easy compared to this challenge.
Carlie stayed after school to help her teacher coallate assignment papers. She wanted to talk to her. Could she really respond to ridicule as a princess would? What was to lose? After all, she was being ridiculed anyway. Would her teacher think it was ridiculous?
Tentatively, Carlie shared her thoughts. Her teacher was quiet. Carlie forged ahead, plowing through the surface crust and turning up the raw soil underneath.
“Mrs Welsh, don’t you see how impossible this is? When my dad yells and my brother is rude and my friends misunderstand me – it’s one thing to read it on a page, and another altogether to act it out.”
“Yes, Carlie, I know.”
“How can you know? You are pretty and smart and grown up and –,“ the look on her teacher’s face interrupted her.
“Carlie. Be very careful of assuming appearances. Often, more often than you know, those who look easily happy have worked very hard to be that way, and others who are glum and self-absorbed have no idea how easy and happy their life is.”
“What do you mean?” Carlie asked.
“I wear a wedding ring and go by Mrs., but I’m divorced. Divorced because of a car accident that killed our baby and left me with serious injuries. My husband blamed me and couldn’t forgive or reconcile or attempt to understand. We lost everything to medical bills and we lost each other to our grief. I had to start from ground level – maybe even the basement.” She looked up at Carlie.
“Understanding myself came first. Who I was, what I wanted to do, how I wanted to help others. My search was answered in teaching. Your search may end somewhere else, but always learn your joy, learn to smile, keep your purpose in giving of yourself to others. If you expect others to give to you, you will be disappointed. But, if you give, and give when it is hard, you’ll be happy.” Mrs. Welsh laughed. “Enough preaching. Let’s finish up these papers and go home.”
“Yes,” said Carlie. “Home to my dad who will yell at me and my brother who will pester, but where I can answer politely and kindly and patiently and pretend to be a royal princess.”
“Don’t forget to smile, your Highness.”
“Don’t tease me.”
“Sorry, I meant it as encouragement. What did Sara say, something about the triumph of being a princess when no one knows you are?”
“That reminds me of a question. We don’t have many real princesses any more. What would you compare to being a princess nowadays?”
“That’s a good question. Maybe I’ll use that as an essay topic for the class. What do you think?”
“Celebrities maybe. Or the children of the celebrities who are born into the wealth and glamour and fame.”
“Children of celebrities is a good analogy. It’s not what they do, but what their parents did that gives them their position. But, Sara takes her thinking a little farther, as far as the depth of character she attempts to emulate. Too many celebrities live their lives without any understanding of the value of character.”
“Like in the magazines at the grocery store check-out line.”
“Think about what gives you your value. Is it your clothes, your friends, your neighborhood, your money, your grades, your talents, your fame? Those are outer, external things. True value comes from deeper within, things no one can take away from you.”
“Like what I learn, how I respond to people, my attitudes.”
“Exactly.” The janitor walked by outside the classroom door. “We do need to leave before he locks us in.”
“Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It helped.”
“No problem. We didn’t finish the papers, but you still helped out. I appreciate it.”
“I’m sorry about your baby, and your husband, and I’m sorry I assumed your life was perfect and easy just because of how you look.”
“It’s O.K. Remember that people are deeper than they seem. Even your father.”
“Oh.” Carlie had a strange thought. “If I am a princess, does that make him a king? Not sure I like that one.”
As they walked out of the building, her teacher told her, “Whether he acts like a king or not, you can still behave as a princess. Remember that.”
“That reminds me of another question. Isn’t the image of a princess usually more of a bossy, demanding, the-world-owes-me attitude?”
“Hmmm, or, is it really the wanna-be princesses who have that reputation? The step-sisters or the next in line or the ones fighting to claim what they think should be theirs. Isn’t it the true princesses in the stories who are gentle and kind and giving? “
“I see. The happy ending, the usurper loses the plot for the throne, the right person wins in the end.”
“Don’t you believe in happy endings?” her teacher asked.
“Right now, it is hard to see a happy ending. More like a long, steep exhausting climb.”
“Think of the view from the top. Keep the end in sight. It will be worth the climb.”
Carlie opened the door for her teacher as they walked toward the parking lot. “I guess I won’t see the view if I don’t have the courage to take the climb.”
“What do you think the view will be like?”
“Beautiful, I see for miles and miles, lots of trees and mountains and sky and clouds and valleys and more mountains way off in the distance.”
“More mountains to climb, there are always more mountains ahead. Just take each one as it comes. Between each mountain is what – a valley. Valleys aren’t bad places. They are part of the path on the way to the next mountain. And Carlie, help others climb their mountains. That’s the best part of being a princess, sharing all you have with others.”