June 25, 2024

Seeing with the Heart: Revisiting The Little Prince on its Author’s Birthday.

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Mathematics always presented itself to me as an unsurmountable difficulty. I just did not seem to crack it.

I was a good pupil with high scores and a determined ambition. But maths always seemed to stand in my way. And because I was so desperate to be one of the best and so scared of failure it increasingly became an issue in my late teens.

The more I tried, the more I froze. I would sit in the lesson and dread the thought of the teacher calling me out to present an equation at the blackboard in front of the whole class. I remember just seeing his eyes scanning the class room, praying they would not rest on me, my heart pounding and “Tina, why don’t you come to blackboard and give it a go,” the premonition of failure and ridicule started flooding my body as it lifted itself off the chair with an awkwardness only teenagers can experience in all its anxiousness.

In the lead up to an exam, I would worry and not sleep, and often the night before a maths test, I would start hyperventilating or crying trying to explain to my mother how I felt, how worried I was, how scared. My mother tried to console me, tried to calm me down. I would fall asleep and then the next time it would be the same. A repeating cycle of anxiety and dread.

Then one day she gave me a book, one I had read at school beforehand and loved, together with an audio book cassette (welcome to the 90s), spoken by an old famous actor in a deep, consolatory voice: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I loved this book. I had the poster up in my room. My friends and I would send each other little postcards with the front cover picture on it. I had Little Prince notebooks and little quotes of it about flowers needing water and foxes being tamed and all the beautiful metaphors about human connection and the value of love and friendship. But I also loved its quiet melancholy.

Where are all the people?” the little prince asks when he lands on Earth in the middle of the desert and meets a mysterious snake. “I’m beginning to feel lonely in this desert.” “You can feel lonely among people, too,” replies the snake slithering away. I knew this feeling of loneliness well.

Every time I got worried or scared about my upcoming class or test, I put on the cassette, lay in my bed in the dark, and just listened to the deep comforting voice reading out chapter after chapter, and the panic would slowly pass, my body would relax, and I would be able to go to sleep. Its simplicity and its kindness and humanity made me become kind to myself, made me trust in myself and in my ability, and above all, it turned my mind away from the immediate and toward bigger themes.

The exam wasn’t this big thing anymore; other things were bigger. Simple truths that reminded me of what really matters in life took me away from my anxiety to a place that encapsulated the gentleness of what it means to live a conscious life. To care for the people in your life, to understand and not relinquish the responsibility you have toward those who you were so eager to meet.

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

“Yes” I would think and fall asleep.

Eventually, my mother got me a tutor, Stephen, who was a year above me and who I knew quite well. He came around once a week and we spent an hour going through my homework. He was patient and quiet and kind. And despite his introverted shyness, I noticed how happy he was when he realised I finally got it. My little successes became his successes and his gentle encouragement took my fear away. I don’t think he ever realised how much he helped me.

A year later, I finished my A-levels. We were 90 graduates and I left with the third best score. When my former maths teacher, who was also the school’s headmaster, handed me my certificate, he gave me a hug. No head teacher would nowadays give any of his pupils a hug, I know, but it was innocent and spontaneous. I think he knew. I think he knew how much I had been suffering with his awful subject.

And even to this day, when people mention something about Pythagoras’ theorem, I can feel a little shiver of unease running over my skin, followed by a great relief that I do not need to think about it anymore, and even without it, I will be just fine. You don’t have to be good at everything.

Every time I travel to France and rummage around in those souvenir shops, it is impossible to oversee those Petit Prince memorabilia. notebooks, postcards, fridge magnets. I always stop and remind myself of that time that little book gave me so much comfort. I turn the postcard holders and read the little quotes, the most printed one glaring from the different designs: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

When I went to university, I gave the book to someone I fell in love with in a way we share things with others that have deep meaning for us in the hope that they will get us. And when we saw each other 15 years later, he said, “You sent me The Little Prince by mail. Do you remember? I read it.”

Last summer when my Chilean friend came to stay with us in London and took a detour to Paris before we met again in Barcelona, she handed me a Little Prince magnet, which now sticks on the side of our hob extractor fan, the only place in the house that is magnetic. And when we stayed at her sister’s apartment in Barcelona, I saw leaning against other books a worn notebook with El Principito on it. I would not have dared to open it.

The Little Prince is the most translated book in the world second only to the Bible.

It speaks to our own innocent, gentle, and childlike parts. What The Little Prince says, upon experiencing emotions such as love, fear, or loneliness for the first time, is what so many of us feel in secret, sometimes ashamedly so, especially in adolescence when we try to make sense of the world and us in it.

But even now upon revisiting his work, I take comfort and reassurance in the realisation that the little wisdoms it contains are as accurate as ever.

We would all be a little more at peace, I think, if in between the TikTok make-up tutorials and dance routines this would pop up to remind us:

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…”
“They don’t find it,” I answered.
“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”
“Of course,” I answered.
And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”


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