The Little Prince and I

I was back in Brooklyn, sitting in my sophomore-year French class. We were reading, or at least trying to read, The Little Prince; one might even call it Le Petit Prince. Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and first published in 1943, the book is really quite a sad story—the French Dora the Explorer, if Dora had suicidal tendencies. Our class was small, and we all sat very close together at desks in a little semi-circle towards the front of the classroom. The teacher, Joelle, was about the Frenchest woman I could possibly picture. She had perpetually just-trimmed silver hair, a pointed nose, and impeccable posture. After a lot of time spent producing poor translation after poor translation of the text (to the undeniable dismay of Joelle), we had finally reached the part of the book in which the little prince touches down upon the seventh planet—earth. He finds himself somewhere in the desert, without a person or even a sheep for a friend. There, he encounters one flower, a flower with three petals—“a flower of no consequence at all.”

“Where are the people?” the little prince inquires politely.

“People? There are six or seven of them, I believe, in existence. I caught sight of them years ago. But you never know where to find them. The wind blows them away. They have no roots, which hampers them a good deal.”

“Good-bye,” said the little prince.

“Good-bye,” said the flower. I raised my eyes from this thin book, of so little weight in my hands. Joelle was gleaming at us.

“Les racines...” she inhaled, lifting her pointed noise to great dramatic effect. “Do you have them? What are your roots?”

She went around the semi-circle of desks, and each of the other students answered her question to the best of their linguistic ability. “Mes racines sont ma famille .. l'école ... mes amis..” (My roots are my family…school…my friends…) and then she came to my desk. I lowered my eyes back down to the book, and up again to no one in particular. “Je pense que... Je n’ai pas.. Je n’ai pas” (I think that…I do not have…I do not have).

“Aah Phoebe, tu es libre?” (Phoebe, you are free?) Joelle moved her graceful, French arms about like they were blowing in the wind as she asked, to which everyone laughed, and I only smiled.

“Oui, je pense oui,” I replied.   

Je n’ai pas…Je n’ai pas… It almost escaped me, being so far down the tip of my tongue. But it came back, sailing back from out of the fog, out of nowhere. I stood there remembering as always, and remembering everything, and I remembered this class. I heard again what I said, in broken, not even proper French, and I kept repeating it to myself like an echo: je n’ai pas, je n’ai pas, je n’ai pas. I continued to repeat it to myself, over and over, as though in the three years since I had never truly stopped saying it. I am not sure why it had the effect on me it did, but I was near drunk, light on the mere idea of it. Perhaps it was because distance now had a name: like any other street, like any other road travelled along the way, I could look in all directions and point to the absence and call: je n’ai pas. I knew then that I was right when I had said it, and that I would probably always be right. Again I smiled a small, exalted smile.

“You never know where to find them,” said the flower of no consequence, “the wind blows them away.” So blow me away! Never find me! I can almost promise it would not hamper me in the least. That is unless, of course, you happen to hail from some far-off planet. One with roses and thorns.

This memory, which I stumbled recently, brought me great relief. It was so little a memory that I could have forgotten it, being three words thrown out against all others, spoken incorrectly in an old French class in Brooklyn. But just to hear them again, laughing musical words—laughing right out of the past. They fell as gently as a tree. There was not even a sound. -Phoebe Roberts

Phoebe Roberts is a first year student at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. She is originally from New York where she graduated from Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn.

The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
126 pp.