If Prince William asks you to go to the ball, you say yes, right? Except I think I made some sort of guttural sound and then muttered “uh-huh,” like a Muppet.
It was simply not a question I’d ever expected to be asked as an American whose best reference for a ball was from Disney’s Cinderella. It sounded made-up, a thing rendered in cartoon. But this was Prince William and he was very real. At the time, back in the early 2000s, he still had all his hair, was dating but not yet engaged to Kate Middleton, and here he was, standing in front of me with a layer of Scottish mist on the shoulders of his sport coat.
I had come to the small seaside town of St. Andrews my junior year of college. I took “Tragedy in the Age of Shakespeare” with a Welsh professor whose accent was so thick I would squint each time he spoke. Class was held every Wednesday in the stone basement of a building older than my country. I walked past the ruins of a cathedral to get to the student union. I pretended to be interested in golf. And on the weekends, armed with my Lonely Planet travel guide and EuroRail pass, I explored as many countries and cultures as I could afford.
Study and travel. Those were my goals. Meeting the Prince was not one of them. I knew he was there at the time, studying geography and dating some girl that everyone said was gorgeous. But to me, he was just a trail of rumors. I’d walk into the library and someone would whisper, “You just missed him! He was here! He was wearing a green sweater!” Or I’d be standing in line for a tray at the cafeteria behind a pair of girls huddled over a picture on their phones saying, “That’s his shoulder. No really, it is!” News about him was interesting in the way celebrity gossip always is—fun, but distant.
And so, as I was walking the wet road home one Sunday afternoon and got the text from a friend that I had “just missed him!” at the library, I smiled and kept walking. Then she sent this:
“He is still here. COME NOW.”
There were no emojis then, in the early days of texting, but if there had been, I’m sure she would have used all the hearts and kissy faces. I turned around.
Ten minutes later, I sprinted into the library, got a few yells from the graduate students at the front desk, and found her, my friend, a tiny redhead who looked like she should absolutely be Scottish but was in fact from Connecticut. She was hidden behind a boxy computer.
“Where is he?!” I whispered. It came out in a breathy yell.
“You didn’t see him?”
“He’s outside. At the folding table with two other guys. They’re selling tickets to the Water Polo Ball.”
I sat back on my heels. I’d forgotten he’d played water polo. I wasn’t entirely sure what that even was. I pictured horses in floaties and guys with lacrosse sticks. That couldn’t be right. But something inside me shivered at the thought of saying a few words to a man who could quite possibly be the future king of England and who also looked like he could be in one of my old copies of Tiger Beat.
“I’m going to go talk to him.”
My friend didn’t say anything. A psychology major, she had already gone back to her computer. I walked back outside and emerged in the sunlight blinking like a mole. And there he was, ten feet away and leaning over a wobbly card table.
Up until that point, I had never considered myself a brave person. I was never the first to speak in class or the last one to hold the hard line in an argument. But somehow I managed to take the few steps necessary to force me to either speak to him or retreat forever. I had no small talk to make—could not talk sports or prep schools or royalty insider chitchat. For a horrifying second I couldn’t even remember his name. But then he looked up and smiled like someone coaxing an animal out of hiding and it was enough to jostle a couple of words out of me like loose change.
“Hello,” he said and smiled that smile that showed all his teeth.
“You’re from America, then?” he asked after a few seconds that lasted a thousand years where I blinked myopically at him in silence.
“Yes, from the south. Tennessee.” I fought the urge to trace a map on the table with my finger. He was a geography major, after all.
“Ah, Jack Daniels.”
It was a joke. Scotland may be whiskey country, but Jack Daniels was still king here. I laughed and he laughed. Just two college students chuckling over alcohol, as per usual. We talked a bit more—which professors I had, what classes he was taking. I think I even gave him a book recommendation. In this small exchange, he was normalized, shrunk down to human size, and I, in turn, grew. So, when he said, “Do you want to go to the ball,” I gave my “uh-huh” and we shook hands. I may have bowed a little as I waved goodbye.
I took the ticket back to my white house by the sea and held it up to the light. It wasn’t so much about attending a ball. In fact, I had plans to fly to Paris that weekend to stay with a friend. We would eat crepes and make lazy circles around the city, like the pigeons. I had no intention of being a wallflower at a dance where William and Kate would trip the light fantastic. I had wanted to speak to him to prove that I could. Even if all I did was say hello and laugh about liquor. It was better than chasing a ghost of a celebrity around town and always wondering. It was also an acknowledgment of my own self-worth. Yes, he had the titles and the lineage and the fandom, but we were equals on a fundamental level. We were just two kids trying to pass class.
I tell this story to my daughter now, who is in love with all things prince and princess. I gloss over the whiskey joke a bit, but I make sure to emphasize the part where I am brave and he is human. I never want her to forget her own worth and the worth of every individual. It’s not the title that gives a person significance, but the simple fact of existence. We all deserve to feel heard.
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