I am smack dab in the middle of Harry Potter week, which means a marathon of movies with our friends at the theater (with priority seating to the 8th movie, woot), a very poignant reading of Dear Mr. Potter (an awesome anthology of letters to Harry et al. put out by the Harry Potter Alliance) and staying up to ridiculous hours with Jeffrey making stencils to bleach t-shirts with such sayings as “Squib” “Keep Calm and Read Hogwarts a History,” “Potterwatch,” and “Wazlib is our King.”
If you’re someone who cares about kids, and literacy, I am sure that Dear Mr. Potter would make you cry. There are so many stories about this lucky, lucky generation that got to grow up with Harry. I’m sorry to inform you that the current generation of young teens are pretty jaded about HP. As far as they know it has always existed, and always been everywhere, and therefore to most of them is kind of lame and not worth investigating, unless older HP lovers really press the issue with them.
In the past week I’ve thought, wow maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on how to get kids to love reading, but worry more about how to get them to love Harry Potter. (Am I kidding?)
I’ve thought about so many things. I want to know why Harry Potter matters. To me, I guess. Because the generation of older teens who grew up with him will tell you, in such beautiful eloquent ways, why it matters to them. I urge you to check it out:
(More stories that didn’t make it into the book at: http://www.dearmrpotter.org/)
In my reading of it, the words that struck chords again and again were “you were my childhood. You were my friend. You were my constant.”
Those kids are freaking awesome, seriously:
In the past few years I’ve started talking to my students a lot about universal themes. I think the theme is the most important “literary element” to be able to recognize; it’s certainly the most interesting. Theme, of course, is the mortar on the ivory tower of literary studies. But that doesn’t mean crap to my students. What matters to them is why to read something. What makes it not boring. What can transport you away and remind you of your own life in the same sweeping narrative. They don’t know why it does that, and they don’t really care. They just like how it feels. (Then we ask them why. It’s a delicate balance, really).
Part of my job as a teacher is to converse with my students. (And, another very difficult part is to make sure I don’t begin to talk like them.) I think it’s funny how the word “epic” came into popular teen parlance recently.
Harry Potter is epic. Does that mean it has all the universal themes? The important ones? Does that mean that it’s a crystal in which you see whatever theme is most relevant to you? I don’t know. Epics, I think, are kind of like poetry. I remember my high school teacher quoting from someone (teachers are such awful charlatans, aren’t we?) “I don’t know what poetry is but I know it when I see it.” Epic is that way, I think. A heart full of helium, goosebumps, sharp intakes of breath. A sense of scale. Tiny things are magnificently huge and important. Huge things are dwarfed by them. We are dizzied by the microscope that becomes a telescope.
I was about 21 when I started reading Harry Potter in 2000. Not a child. Maybe about Tonks age, or Bill, although I think that the wizarding world has a much better vocational system than we do, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. Unlike the teens who found a whole, complete, encompassing world in Harry Potter that dominated their childhoods, I had nothing of the sort. Really, there WAS nothing of the sort. There were good, even great books for younger readers when I was a child. But there was nothing compared to what there was now. i cobbled together, it seems to me now, a makeshift world, Jane Eyre and Douglas Adams. Oscar Wilde and Piers Anthony(!) Babysitter’s Club! Anne of Green Gables. Whatever, whenever.
Really, as an undergrad, I tried very hard to carve out a niche for myself in academia. I spent countless hours sitting on the floor outside professor’s offices of the utilitarian Ballantine Hall at IU, hoping for a word or a notice, tolerating missed meetings and veiled condescension. I went to a conference at Oxford. I had my first book planned. I would understand, where most people didn’t.
But there was nothing, really, supporting me on that climb. I am glad I faltered, and about the time I was faltering, Harry Potter was changing the world.
I do think to say that Harry Potter made me want to be a reading teacher is terribly revisionist. I was completely unconscious of it. And as I enter my fifth year of teaching middle school, I still marvel at how I came to do something I swore I never would, and how fiercely I love it and let it take whatever I can give. But I do think that Rowling brought back a dire, primal love of story that academia had flattened out of me. About that same time I read a non-fiction book about one of my childhood favorites, Nancy Drew. It described the laborious, commercial process of producing that beloved series, which was a collaboration of many people. I don’t know why, but that book firmly planted me on one side of the textual fence. I did not want to read any more ugly, fraught, speculative academic text (of which that book was not, btw). It exhausted me. I did not want to produce more of it. I wanted the damn magic back.
The first person I heard mention Harry Potter was my mother. She told me she had bought the books for my younger cousin, and that they were supposed to be really good, and they were about a school for wizards. Before I ever picked up that book, I had a dream about it. Just the phrase “school for wizards” sparked my imagination. My dream school was nothing like Hogwarts, it was modern, the robes were white, and it involved a lot of floating up to read on platforms.
I’ve never had a Harry Potter house. But I love the idea, I think we all do. Wouldn’t you like to put on a magical hat and go sit at a table full of people like you who will cheer for you? A second home, a second family? Even for those of us who, unlike Harry, have a first one? Don’t get me started, literature just loves an orphan. It was necessary for Harry, why is it necessary for us?
We love to learn about ourselves! As if we didn’t know. One of the things we talk about most is when we go to trainings and they make us take quizzes or pick to find out what kind of teacher we are. Then they give us a color, a shape, and a description of what that means. I remember a similar passion for astrology when I was younger. Tell me who I am, so I don’t have to tell you! See in me the best things, that I am blind to. Tell me my strengths because even if I know them, I am insecure about them. What color of cat are you? Which Twilight character are you? (Calico, Alice, Green, Z, and Aquarius with a Virgo moon and rising).
For sure pre-Potter I thought was a Slytherin, a Ventrue, noblisse oblige tattooed on my Chucks. Now I try to be sympathetic with those who see something of themselves in the Dark Arts, but Voldemort is much much more evil than Lestat, so it’s hard, I tell you!
Harry Potter matters to me, I guess, ultimately, because it is a great story. And like so many others, I believe that great stories, epic stories, are one of the finest products of civilization. Because they make life better for people. All sorts of people. They unite people, and yet they still speak to us in our loneliness.
So I love my job so fiercely, despite the epic amounts of BS, because I go to work each day trying to reunite great stories with their readers. I wish all my students loved Harry Potter! But you can’t make meaning out of disinterest. They’ll see someday, I hope.
I think, now that it’s all almost over, I will let you sort me. I do think, really, that teaching is one of the bravest things one can do.