Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to be a princess.
It wasn’t just that she wanted a poofy pink dress with sparkles or a pony all her own that she could ride. It wasn’t just that she wanted to live in a big castle. It wasn’t just about dress up and make believe. She wanted to be royal. She wanted to be beautiful and graceful and noble and brave.
She wanted her father the king to dote on her and her subjects to love her and princes to come from far and wide to seek her hand in marriage. She wanted to rule wisely and bring happiness and also, obviously, to save her kingdom from some grave danger.
In her head she imagined many such scenarios. She lived out the stories when she was alone, using all her brains and guts to solve as many crises as her eight-year-old brain could conceive. She wasn’t any fainting flower princess. She was a brave princess, bold and daring.
When October rolled around, then, and her mother asked her what she wanted to be for Halloween, there was only one possible answer. Of course she would be a princess. Of course.
The next few weeks were very exciting. Her mother went to thrift store and brought home a lovely, filmy ball gown. The girl’s eyes shone as her mother adjusted it to fit her small frame. Another day, her mother found the perfect blue shoes to match the dress. They even had a little bit of a heel. The girl tried them on and walked carefully around the house imagining her future splendor. Hair styles were discussed. Sparkling jewelry was added. It was perfect in every way.
The week of Halloween finally came, then the night of the Halloween carnival at school. It was cold and grey and drizzly outside, but inside the little girl glowed with happiness as she put on her dress and her shoes and her jewelry. Braided hair completed the transformation. She was a princess, finally looking on the outside what she had long felt like on the inside.
Of course, all these glories had to be covered up with a raincoat and hood. The weather would not be concerned with the state of her dress. The whole family piled into the station wagon and headed out.
In the back seat, the little girl looked out at the rain and felt her insides begin to tremble. Slowly a pit grew in her stomach and worries began to crowd her brain. As they pulled into the school parking lot, the girl could see dozens of families piling out of cars and running laughingly through the rain toward the school. Light streamed out of the doors and the sounds of thronging people echoed out into the night.
The girl’s joy in her princess clothes was completely gone now, washed out in one terrifying thought.
Everyone was going to see her costume and then they were going to know.
All these strangers would be know her most treasured secret, her greatest longing, her innermost dream. They would see that this plain, ordinary redhead in a small town in Oklahoma dared to imagine that she was an actual princess. They would see how silly it was. They would find her ridiculous.
It was unbearable.
The little girl was silent as they went inside. Her brother donned his giant cardboard-box robot costume. Her mother offered to help her take off her coat. But the little girl refused. She didn’t want to take off her coat. She didn’t want anyone to see her costume.
The rest of the evening was excruciating. The school was crowded, packed with laughing people playing carnival games and collecting candy and participating in cake walks. The little girl, with her coat wrapped tightly around the costume that could betray her, was hot and uncomfortable. She was in constant dread of people asking her what she was dressed as. Many times her mother offered to take her coat, but the little girl just clutched it tighter.
It was the only thing protecting her inner life from this crowd of strangers.
Finally, finally, the family had enough and they went home. As they got into the car, the little girl could see the disappointment in her mother’s eyes. She had worked so hard on that costume and in the end no one had seen it. The little girl wanted to tell her. She wanted to say that it was lovely, that it was perfect, that her mother had done everything just right. She wanted to say the real reason that she didn’t dare show anyone. But she couldn’t. It was all too embarrassing. It was all too ridiculous. She just wanted to go home and forget that all of this had ever happened. She wanted to go back to dreaming her private dreams, beautiful and alone.
But the princess dream was no longer beautiful. Something about that night had made it lose its’ brilliance. She could no longer pretend to be noble and gracious because she knew that she was not. She was ordinary and selfish. She could no longer pretend to be brave and daring because she knew that she was not.
She was a coward, afraid to expose her inner life to anyone who would not understand it, and though she didn’t know words like vulnerability and candor, she did know that she no longer felt like a true princess. She did know she couldn’t pretend she was, even to herself.
Still, the little girl wanted it. She wanted to be what she was not. To be brave. To be confident. To let was inside, out into the world. To be free. To be true.
The little girl wanted to be a princess, and now she knew what it would take.