One lunchtime, during my college days, I was seated in my favorite corner of my favorite neighborhood café, around the corner from the school, when a friend of mine walked in. She came over to my table, leading another girl I didn’t recognize. My friend introduced Sali and I asked them to sit down. Thus began a “school-year-long” friendship with Sali and our small group of friends. This was a circle of promising singers, actors, dancers, etc. and Sali was a pianist. My kind-hearted female friend had introduced our little group to Sali because she saw Sali sitting alone those first couple weeks of September and thought she could use a friend.
Sali was quiet, but funny, humble but a piano virtuoso. No one would describe her as a “classic” beauty, but behind her large glasses were large, dark eyes. In her somewhat dull and baggy clothes she had a very gracious way about her. When she wasn’t with us, we guessed she “came from money”. As awkward, socially, as she might have been, she obviously had some good breeding…better breeding than most of us.
The school year went through the seasons. After each recital, or performance, we had the obligatory party and Sali was always a part of it. We liked her, and she liked us. She didn’t speak much, perhaps thinking her English wasn’t great…although it was. We couldn’t tell from her accent where this dark-skinned, dark-haired, girl, was from and any question about her family or background was always met with a tactful change-of-subject.
Then there were the little “gifts”. Each of us experienced, from her, a quiet moment when she would present us with a little token; a scarf for one of the girls, a poetry book, a flower for a teacher…always something thoughtful and unexpected. We were, in that little circle of friends, happy to be around her although, many times, it was difficult to tell she was even there; always quiet, always in the background.
At the end of the year she was, surprisingly, leaving. She had been there only that year, and her family was coming to take her back home, she told us. Then she handed each of us a small invitation, hand-written on simple card-stock, an invitation to a dinner party her parents were having for her before they took her back home with them…they wanted her to invite her “school friends” and she considered us to be her ONLY friends. She informed us that it was formal. We must’ve looked a little shocked. The two of us guys especially. The girls, of course, were thrilled. The other male and I “borrowed” school tuxes.
The address for the party was downtown at a large hotel. We arrived and were, shockingly, ushered to a large banquet hall on one of the upper floors. The doors opened and we walked in, looking very much like we were there for the prom….while everyone else we saw looked like they dressed this way every day.
The place was filled with well-groomed, obviously important, adults. There was a champagne fountain, lots of food, and a string quartet. As we stood there, an elegant woman with a thick accent, and dressed in purple velvet, smiled as she approached us. She asked if we were the school friends she’d heard of. We were, we said. Then she said words I will never forget and still hear ringing in my ears as I write down this story:
“The Shahzadi is over there, she’ll be so happy to see you.”
Yup, that’s what she said: “The Shahzadi…”
With mouths open, we all turned to see where she indicated, and there was Sali, dressed in shimmering blue, her glasses gone, her hair up…and fixed with a small-but-extremely sparkly Eastern-style tiara.
In a flash we all understood, and we were all befuddled. Our friend, Sali, the girl who was reluctant to share about her family or background – just happened to be the “inheriting” daughter of some Sultan (we soon discovered). We met her Dad (the Sultan) and her Mom (Mrs. Sultan), and some of her parents’ friends/dignitaries.
It seems Sali had been given a year of freedom; a year to do what she would like to do, before returning home to marry. She decided to take one school year, studying the piano (an instrument she had played since early childhood) within the context of a “college”…something she wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. She wanted to make some “normal” friends, (‘Couldn’t get more NORMAL than us), and she wanted to experience America. Her aunt lived in Washington State and hosted her there. I know, it sounds like the plot of a Disney film, but there it was.
One of our circle said it best, as we all sat in the corner table with Sali at the end of the evening – like so many nights at our café: “All this time, you were wearing a hidden crown…and we never knew.”
She was a “Princess among us”. Yes, ours was a school of the very wealthy and the very not wealthy, of Americans and International students. But a “Sultana”? Really? We were shocked AND started thinking back on our friendship over the year – wondering if any of us had committed some slight that would end up with us losing our heads. But Sali, with tears and hugs all around thanked us for being her friends, for allowing her to experience “American” college life, and for drawing her into our little circle. Would we have treated her differently had we known?
I started looking at everyone I knew differently after that: “Alright, who else? Are any of the rest of you sultans, or queens, or…?” If Sali, this quiet, shy, funny, warm, giving, awkward, girl was a “Shahzadi” or “Sultana”…then anyone could be anything!
And isn’t that the TRUTH? In the Kingdom we are asked to look upon everyone as if they were wearing “hidden crowns”, to treat all strangers with hospitality in case they are “angels”. (HEBREWS 13:2) We are to look at others as if they were “better” than us. (PHILIPPIANS 2:3-4) I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that many people tend to look at others, and treat them, in just the opposite way. Often we are taught by the WORLD to make sure WE have good self-esteem, that WE know our own self-worth, that WE are to be cared for first.
But God didn’t create the world to work that way. He honors us when WE see the hidden crowns everyone else (the good, the bad, AND the ugly) is wearing; when we treat OTHERS (no matter who) as if THEY, and not we, were royalty deserving of respect and love.
Imagine how different these last few years would’ve been if we had seen everyone’s hidden crowns. But let’s not look back, let’s look forward and start seeing those crowns now…that alone, quite possibly, could change the world.