Occasionally I find myself in the palaces not merely of the rich, but of the titled. One of my earliest bookings was with the child of a prince of a Middle Eastern Royal Family. The house’s geography, like the family’s status, was situated midway between Buckingham Palace and Harrods.
I was not alone in working with this young prince. There was a group of us working with his highness at different hours to help him with his core subjects for GCSE. I was hired to teach Maths and arrived to find the child dwarfed by the cavernous proportions of the family’s Georgian residence, hunched over a dining table so polished you could have applied make up in its reflection. Every pencil and piece of paper was mirrored by the luster of its glassy black surface. Sadly, once the lesson started, this was about as clear as things got.
“I don’t understand,” sighed the prince. We had begun by very gently working through addition and subtraction, had experienced moderate success with minor multiplication and were now approaching the dark arts of division. I drew a cluster of circles on the paper and bags in which to convey them, in an attempt to explain the process by which numbers decreased. He followed my drawings, watched as numbers moved across the page, nodding judiciously all the while, as though he were assessing the merits of a particularly knotty legal case.
“Do you see?” I asked, willing him to gaze in the miraculous dawn of comprehension, solve the Holmesian puzzle and divide that 16 by 4.
He scowled. Bit his lip. Winced.
Then shook his head.
One of the people, paid, like me, to assist in the smooth running of life, entered with a tangerine and an apple on a plate. I grabbed the tangerine and began to finger it open, certain that with a little practical demonstration, division would be mastered like the squat orange fruit, peeled of its impossible skin and ready to yield sweet rewards.
“See, division is like this,” I offered, splitting the tangerine into chunks. “If there are twelve segments of this tangerine, and I divide it into two like so…”
I handed him half the tangerine.
“Oh thank you,” he beamed.
“Then how many segments are there…”
I broke off as I watched him chewing absently on a piece of the answer.
“Yes, I am listening. Go on,” he nodded, “How many are what?”
This went on for several hours, over several weeks. I used matches, sweets, even those edible ball bearings waiting like disco mines to crack your teeth on the frosting of cup cakes. Still division was beyond us. Fractions, percentages, proportions, ratios: every part of Maths that involved even the scent of division became a bog into which the merrily trundling truck of our lessons would squelch and stick.
Finally I left, admitting defeat, but trusting that even if he couldn’t master division, the young prince would doubtless find his métier in life, playing polo or managing the odd oil field.
Intelligence doesn’t matter to a royal family. They don’t get where they are by being brilliant mathematicians or writing soul-honest sonnets, but by being born into the biggest inequality racket in town. Royal families only need to get their offspring through the best schools like they need to make sure they can kill things and know which knife
to use: because it’s the done thing. If lessons don’t work, there are always tutors. And if tutors don’t work, there’s always Art History.
No, the prince, I had no doubt, would be fine. And if the question ever arose, how many barrels could be filled from x number of strikes, well, I don’t doubt there would be any number of geniuses on hand to work it out for him.