A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, January 13, 2017

Getting a few things sorted

“I kind of think I might be a Ravenclaw.  But I would be fine with being anything except a Slytherin.  I mean, I know Slytherins can sometimes be okay, but…”
But, yeah, exactly.  Who would want to be assigned to the Hogwarts House with the You-Know-Who-related PR problem?  Clearly, it would be better to be labeled a bookish Ravenclaw or even a loyal Hufflepuff.  Of course, best of all would be joining Gryffindor, the house of Hermione, Ron, and Harry himself.  Gryffindors not only save the world from unspeakable evil, they also manage to be funny, dashing, and charming as they do so. 
I have two ten year-olds.  I live in a world in which Quidditch is a topic of serious discussion, ethics are debated in terms of Draco Malfoy’s moral compass, and being Sorted is a Really Big Deal.  For the past four months, I’ve been working my way through all 4,224 pages of the Harry Potter series with the twins – a pleasure for which I had to wait an irksomely long time.  Although their closest friends weathered the terrors of the Forbidden Forest and Godric’s Hollow as early as kindergarten, my kids were unified in their fear of Scary Stuff – including all things Potter -- until very recently.  I now relish attempting to make my voice as somber, as mirthful, or as Snape-y as each sentence requires.  They hang onto my every word.  Often, Molly also hangs onto my arm, my knee, or my entire body.  As soon as I’m done reading each book, Lizzy seizes it and squirrels it away in her bed for rereading – a feat she usually accomplishes in one tenth the time needed for the original oration. 
This past weekend, just as we embarked upon the seventh, final, and most wrenching book of the series, the twins’ older-and-wiser middle-school friend introduced them to the wonders of Pottermore – the official J.K. Rowling-approved website that not only allows aficionados to wallow in such details as the significance of wand-flexibility, but also provides the opportunity to be Sorted into a Hogwarts house via a quirky, thought-provoking personality quiz.  Since then, I’ve spent more time than a grownup ought to admit to spending, thinking about Hogwarts houses. 
Yes, of course I took the quiz myself.  I was Sorted into Gryffindor. 
Gryffindor!  The crimson-and-gold lion-emblemed home of House Cup winners and troll-slayers!  The manifestly BEST house! 
Or… is it?  Are boldness and bravery – even if combined with honor -- truly the best qualities anyone could ever wish for in themselves?  In their friends?  Their lovers?  Their children? 
Rereading the series, this time as a parent, is seems more obvious that courage has a few downsides.  In every single book, our heroic trio -- even brilliant Hermione -- leap into drastic adventures with a marked lack of foresight, logic, and concern for their own skins.  Gryffindors’ bold spirits sometimes trump not only good sense, but also their own good natures – and I’m not just talking about that obvious rat, Pettigrew.  James Potter, Harry’s father, was more than a bit of a bully as a teenager.  Fred and George Weasley are hilarious in print, but in real life I definitely wouldn’t sample their licorice twists, if you know what I mean. 
And me?  Yeah.  Me.  I’ve done a few headlong or headstrong things that I’m far from proud of.  Sometimes audaciousness has served me well.  Sometimes it has sent me to the emergency room.  And sometimes it has sent me into a moral tailspin.  Gryffindor can be a mixed bag.
Of course, Harry will always be the ultimate Gryffindor, and our hero -- with good reason.  He’s incredibly stalwart, and yet somehow still lovably real, even in the face of the insurmountable, the improbable, and the unthinkable.  Just the same, Harry is also the kid who had to whisper to the Sorting Hat, “Not Slytherin.  Not Slytherin.” 
Until I started reading the series for a second time, pausing to discuss it with my children, the significance of that “not Slytherin” didn’t fully impress itself upon me.   In concordance with other modern-day sagas, Rowling’s books illuminate the peculiarly fine line between the dark side and the light, between the boldness of the crimson-and-gold lions and the ambition of the green-and-silver snakes, between the Snape we love to hate and the Snape we hate to love. 
 “Why do people follow leaders who are evil?” 
Apt question, kiddo.  Too, too, apt, in this season of our discontent. 
Indeed, why?  Fear?  Cynicism?  Arrogance?  Morbid fascination?  Denial? Fake news?  Bigotry? Thrill-seeking? Saving face? A sycophantic love of bullies, because they seem “tough”?  Kudos to Rowling for digging deep into all of these issues – all without dulling the excitement of a damned good kids’ story.  The discussion that swirled from this question alone has been timely, difficult, and deeply important enough to more than justify my cramped forearms and sore larynx. 
Kudos, too, to Rowling for resisting simply black-hatting every Slytherin, and instead creating characters like Horace Slughorn, the mildly repellent good-enough guy, and Severus Snape, the deeply repellent hero. It’s obvious to the reader that although the world needs its Slytherins – with all their cunning – the world also sometimes needs to tell them to shut up and sit down.   It is less obvious, perhaps, that sometimes the brave, bold, glowing heroes of Gryffindor need to be told the same damn thing. 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with Minerva McGonagall.  She’s fierce as hell, and I’ve been having way too much fun, during all my impromptu voice-acting, in providing her with a take-no-shit-from-anyone Scottish accent.  Likewise, part of my heart will always belong to the fiercely tortured soul of Sirius.  As for Dumbledore… oh, Dumbledore, you had me from your very first “Tweak”.  Nonetheless, it is only when the Gryffindors momentarily pause in their headlong tumult that we begin to notice those other, quieter folks.
The intellectual Ravenclaws have their bookish merits and quirky Luna-ish sweetness, despite their supposed aloofness and occasional dalliances with the more serpentine side of magic.  Filius Flitwick is notable among Hogwarts teachers for… just teaching Charms.  He, you know, teaches.  Like teachers do.  On the other hand, Gilderoy Lockhart.  Yeah. Ravenclaw.
And this brings us – last, as they always seem to be – to the Hufflepuffs.  The gentle, cheerful, loyal, hard-working Hufflepuffs.  The Hufflepuffs that everyone forgets about, and no one seems to want to actually be.  But why not?
No.  Seriously, people, WHY NOT?
This past weekend, I learned that I am raising a pair of half-blood Hufflepuffs. 
Since then, I’ve found myself considering HuffIepuff.  A lot.  Much of this consideration has consisted of considering why I’d previously failed to consider Hufflepuff much at all. 
Looking at my two young witches, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I was thrilled with their new labels.  Hufflepuffs!  Yes!  They’re kind!  They’re loyal!  They’re equal-opportunity!  They play fair!  Hufflepuffs embody every value we claim to want in our children, our friends, our lovers, and ourselves.  A member of the House of the Badger will never hit you with an unprovoked pimple jinx.  Nor will he call you a mud-blood -- even though, let’s face it, you’re totally a mud-blood.
In truth, I was completely sure that Molly would be a Hufflepuff before she sat down to take the quiz.  I was less sure about Lizzy.  She’s not bold, although she can rise to a challenge.  She’s ambitious only in the sense of setting her own high standards.  Intellectual?  Yes, she is that.  As she herself suspected, I might have placed my money on Ravenclaw – and when she took the similar Ilvermorny quiz, she indeed ended up the house most suited to “scholars”.  But Hufflepuff made sense, too.  I have, after all, been closely acquainted with my kids for a decade now.  Other people who know them fairly well have given me feedback too, via informal anecdotes and printed report cards.  The words are different every time, but the news is the same: “Ma’am, your child is a good student.  Also, she’s totally a Hufflepuff.”
This is meant as a compliment.  Teachers like teaching Hufflepuffs.  Other kids don’t mind being seated next to Hufflepuffs or being assigned to their kickball teams.  A Hufflepuff will not copy your test answers, leave gum on the bottom of the desk, or mock you for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers.
So… why the decided lack of enthusiastic cheerleading for the house with the fuzzy-bumblebee colors?  And why our blatant hypocrisy?  Because, even as we earnestly tell young children to act like good little Hufflepuffs, we systematically overlook and denigrate their adult Hufflepuff counterparts.  We talk over them.  We fail to promote them.  We refuse to date them.  Especially if they happen to be male, Hufflepuffs are derided as “wimpy” and “lame”.
Bullshit.  Kindness is not wimpy.  Equality is not lame. 
Besides, it’s not as if Hufflepuffs can’t possess the virtues of the other houses in addition to their wonderful, kind-hearted, egalitarian defining characteristics.  Cedric Diggory was hella brave. Tonks took “bold” to new levels.  Pomona Sprout, puttering away in her greenhouses, was not without her own formidable intellect and powers.  We tend to forget about this Head of House, not because she isn’t competent, but because she is.  She refrains from spiteful, spurious, biased, or melodramatic additions or subtractions to house points.  She doesn’t set up hazardous contests, bait students into misbehavior, play favorites, try to adopt baby dragons, or harbor dark secrets.  She doesn’t define herself by her bad-assery.  But let there be no doubt: Hufflepuffs, when the situation calls for it, are capable of being brilliant, cunning, epically badass, and brave AF. 
Don’t believe me?  Okay.  But when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows reached its desperate denouement, who stepped up to fight in the terrifying, corpse-strewn Battle of Hogwarts?  The Gryffindors, yes.  They fought with valor and with heart-rending “Not my daughter, you bitch!” passion.  Even though I hadn’t read the series in a dozen years, this was still etched in my memory.  But it was only through stumbling upon an interview with Rowling online that I re-learned who else fought: some of the Ravenclaws, and all of the Hufflepuffs.  All of the Hufflepuffs.  ALL OF THEM. 
The fact that I’d forgotten this essential point says as much about who the Hufflepuffs are as does their valiant participation.  This is how Rowling wrote them.  They faced the Death Eaters from within their own quiet place of non-glory, and I, arrogant bastard that I am, barely noticed.  And yet, without them, how might the battle have spun?
Maybe I’ve been fired up by a cute little quiz on Pottermore.  Maybe I’ve been fired up by the simmering don’t-screw-up-their-future wrath of parenthood and politics.  Either way, this time around, I won’t forget.  Indeed, I’m really looking forward to getting to that scene with the kids.  Not just because it’s an awesome culmination to a fabulous story, and not just because it carries fodder for layer upon layer of philosophical, discussion about good, evil, life, death, and love, but also because it addresses one particular question: what happens when the loud and the brave are joined by those who know what is right, and are willing to go to the wall for it? 
My kids are not particularly bold.  As such, although they can easily handle 4,224 pages of text on their own, they want me to guide them through the wrenching psychological torments of this fictional world.  They want me to help uncover those dark complexities.  And I couldn’t be more glad.
Even if the Dark Mark reappears in the sky, it’s not all over.  Teach your Hufflepuffs well.