Once upon a time
By Carla Lever
I’ve been asked by one of the English teachers at Herschel – who, being both passionate about her subject and a cracking personality, is everything you always hope your teacher would be – to come and address her senior students. It’s for what she terms a ‘curriculum engagement’ session. The topic? “Anything you think 17 year old girls should know.”
Being a 30 year old whose only recollection of being 17 was involved navigating school corridors in extremely unfashionable glasses and what can charitably be termed sensible shoes, this has phased me somewhat. What – given the choice – would I go back and tell my 17 year old self?
A week ago, while on holiday in Verona, I was thinking a lot about this question. (I realise it’s getting mildly obnoxious to country name-drop like some kind of overly ambitious travel show host, but bear with me one last time). My friends and I decided the only sensible thing we could think of doing on our last night was to hire period-authentic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ costumes and spend the evening wandering around the old city seeing how many photographs we could get with other tourists. As one does.
This was tricky, considering the previous day’s city wanderings had given me foot blisters the size of poached eggs, but I stuck it out, if only because I’d never felt as much like a fairy tale princess in my life and being in a foreign country was as good a reason as any to fully own something I’d be forced to scoff at in my real life.
Suddenly, a little girl in a decorated paper crown started running towards us, running with an intensity that was borderline scary. She stopped dead in front of me and looked up, eyes shining. All her English would stretch to was to say she was from Finland.
With some kind of homing pigeon instinct, she had obviously found her princess mothership – the female yoda to her Luke, the Mr Miyagi to her karate kid. Forget 17, I desperately wanted to give this seven year old something to justify her expectation. Having left my pocket Finnish phrasebook in my other 16th century smock, I couldn’t tell her what was going through my mind. If I could, though, this would have been it:
I would have told her that one day, your prince will come. Or not. And he’ll be charming. Or – more probably, after a few years – not. In fact, sometimes girls can be princesses and also be 30, single and cat owners. (Heck, sometimes princesses don’t fancy princes at all).
I’d say that occasionally charming princes will sweep you off your feet – and that might feel great when you have blisters from those impractical glass slippers that are all the rage in princessville, but let me tell you girl, your own feet are your most important assets. Don’t be afraid to use them to take you where you want to go, even if it’s Verona in 40-degree heat, even if it’s away from him. If he doesn’t like you using them to stand up for yourself, it’s time to walk away.
Contrary to what you might have been told, princesses can do that, you know. Turns out, all Rapunzel had to do was get a good haircut and try that door. She just forgot where the door was – as we all sometimes do – because love, as they say in the ballads, lifts you up and we often haven’t a head for heights.
Prefer historical narratives? I’d tell her that we princesses put crowns on our heads because we value the head, not the crown, so it’s ok to use it now and again. I’d say that unlike the princesses of the past who tended to have nasty habits of losing theirs to accurate executioners, we modern girls have no excuse. Moral of my story? Keep your head on your shoulders and your feet on the ground.
Above everything else I think I’d say that happily ever after isn’t something that happens to you at the end of the day.
It’s a choice you make for yourself – again and again – despite the blisters that are disgusting, despite the toads that turn out to be just toads. No, fairy tale happy endings are something you earn by writing them on your own terms. Every day. Ever after.
Follow Carla Lever on Twitter (@carlalever)
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