“Aren’t we happy that the rain didn’t come today?” The forecast in New York City for Friday, September 24 included torrential downpour from morning until night. The day began under gray, humid skies, but, as if by magic, became cloudless by 11 a.m. The good fortune was not lost on Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, who kicked off her opening remarks at P.S.123 in Harlem just as the sun began to shine.
Standing beneath a tent outside the elementary school, the Duchess had within seconds captured the attention of an excited class of second graders—and a conspicuous Prince Harry, who assumed the cross-legged position among them. The kids were patient and calm, mirroring the Duchess’s demeanor.
The Sussexes, who touched down in New York on Wednesday, were in Harlem for one of several planned appearances while in the city. During their visit, they met with students and teachers at the public elementary school, and celebrated its new initiatives, but the main event was a reading of the Duchess’s first children’s book, The Bench. The book, which was published earlier this summer is very personal to Meghan and Harry; the story is about the bond between a father and son, as seen from the perspective of a mother.
“I made this book originally as a poem for my husband and son, and I have never read it to any other kids besides my own kids, so I’m really excited,” the Duchess told the children. She started with the dedication page—“for the man and the boy who make my heart go pump-pump”—explaining that their son Archie, now two, refers to his heart as “pump-pump.”
The book’s titular object, a bench, actually exists—the Duchess purchased a bench, inscribed with a poem, for Prince Harry as a gift. But in the book, it’s not just a symbol, or a lesson for young kids and adult fathers. The story is about her, too. “Some days he may cry,” she reads, “perched there underneath, you’ll feel happiness, sorrow, and one day be heartbroken. You’ll tell him ‘I love you,’ those words always spoken.”
Meghan, the first bi-racial woman to become a member of the British royal family, has experienced racism from the tabloids, on social media, and, according to the Duchess, from within the monarchy itself. Even here, on the cheerfully-painted blacktop of P.S. 123, protestors clung to the fence surrounding the school, taunting the Duchess as she read. She’d already overcome one threat of stormy weather, and didn’t let the angry shouting stop her, either.
Once she finished reading, Markle posed a question to the kids: “Who is the person in your life that is so special to you, and means so much? Where is the place where you find to be your happy place?” In short: where was their bench?
P.S. 123 is a neighborhood school serving kindergarteners to eighth graders, many of whom live in shelters and temporary housing. And yet, small hands shot up almost instantly. As some students shared details of their “benches,” Prince Harry made sweet mischief with others kids in the crowd, indulging in their whispers and whispering back himself. Meghan was poised, warm, and focused, while Harry remained goofy and playful.
While the Sussexes' visit to the school was lighthearted and brief, their impact on the students won't end with the reading. The Duke and Duchess are donating garden boxes filled with vegetables and herbs to support community access to healthy food; their nonprofit, Archewell, worked with Proctor & Gamble to stock P.S. 123's pantry with free health and hygiene products for families of the students; the couple will donate a washing machine and dryer for school uniforms, and Meghan Markle is donating reading nooks to many Graham Windham locations across New York City for both students and parents. Graham Windham is a local non-profit that provides support to youth and families throughout the city, offering services at a number of locations including P.S. 123.
As the event came to a close, there was a noticeable shift in the dynamic between the Duke and Duchess and the kids. The students of P.S. 123 clung to Meghan and Harry as if they never wanted to leave. As the school’s art teacher, James Reynolds, said, “Being able to come and to read the book for the first time to someone outside of their [own] kids meant a great deal. I think it was gratitude on both levels. We’re in a season of gratitude after the past 18 or 20 months that we’ve gone through.” By the end of the visit, there were hugs all around—a warmth coming from more than just the day’s surprise of sunshine.
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