My Royal Encounters

Though they wouldn't have recognized Charles on the street the week before, my students were awed by the idea of meeting the future king. Just the word itself, king, was fantastical.
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"Did you all get your invitations?" I ask the group of eleven-year-olds assembled around our usual table in the hallway. They're buzzing with excitement about the big wedding, and more imminently, our school's Royal Wedding party on Thursday, to which we all (staff and students) are invited to wear our "prince and princess gear."

We can don all the tiaras we want this week, but in the great British social schematic, we're many miles from royal. This is West London, but not west as in the posh West End -- west as in almost in Heathrow's backyard. The students here are the children of recent immigrants, of teen mothers, of public housing and weedy front lawns. If Kate Middleton is a commoner, these children are all but invisible. And I'm an American.

My students look at each other, mystified. "I didn't get one," says Emilia, looking at me, suddenly concerned.

"You didn't? I got mine," I tell her, stone-faced.

"Really?" she gasps.

"Oh yes, of course. The prince and I, we go way back."

"Wills?" asks Sunita, her mouth agape.

Not Wills -- Charles. I have the picture to prove it.

My royal encounter took place back in 2007, when I was still living in New York and co-directing an after-school theatre program at the Harlem Children's Zone. Prince Charles and the duchess made a brief but heavily publicized visit to the organization, where they were treated to a basketball game and, from my students, a scene from our recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Prince Charles was gracious with my students, laughing heartily at their comedic moments and, afterwards, shaking their hands (and mine) and asking about their experiences working on a Shakespeare play. The kids ate it up. Though they wouldn't have recognized Charles on the street the week before, they were awed by the idea of meeting the future king. Just the word itself, king, was fantastical to modern-day American kids. One student was interviewed on the national news, noting solemnly that, "performing for royalty takes a lot of focus." Indeed.

Four years later and across an ocean, I take in the trusting faces of my current students, who are fully prepared to believe that I really am attending the royal nuptials (who doesn't love eleven-year-olds?). Sunita's eyes sparkle behind wire-rimmed glasses. The daughter of immigrants from Mumbai, Sunita cares for her younger siblings when her mother, who has epilepsy, is unable to. She doesn't normally have a vivid imagination -- she'd rather write fact than fiction -- but it seems that where royalty is concerned, even she harbors a few fanciful daydreams.

I wink at her. "Oh, I'm invited," I assure them. "All the teachers in the country are invited, you know. I'll be wearing my ball gown. And one of those big flowery things on my head."

This clues them in. I guess the image of me dressed like Cinderella with a fascinator is too absurd for them to even imagine, and they start giggling.

Like my students in Harlem, these children are far removed from the realms of castles and ball gowns, of centuries-old boarding schools and polo and jet-setting. For most of them, daily life involves struggle, yearning, that locates them in a very different world than Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. But for both groups of children, it would seem, the idea of royalty still captures the imagination, if only for a last moment of make-believe before they grow up. Royalty, to them, is the fairy tale variety of gilded thrones, lavish feasts, having anything you desire at the snap of a finger -- not the rather more cynical view of the monarchy that many of us jaded grown-ups hold. They remind me that we could all stand to lighten up a bit, and relish the rare, if anachronistic, pomp and circumstance. Like Christmas for agnostics, the Royal Wedding day (a national holiday for us in the UK) is maybe best enjoyed with children, for whom the idea of crowns and horse-drawn carriages -- and little girls becoming princesses -- has not quite lost its luster.