Living Well is the Best Redemption

Over the past nine months, pandemic-induced isolation has forced me to get more comfortable than ever with my own company. To that end, I’ve been turning more and more to the Harry Potter series, my “problematic fave,” the one piece of pop culture that has shaped who I am more than any other.

Despite their many flaws, the Harry Potter books give my soul a safe place to rest. Reading them is like going home in the purest way, even when war and violence consume the narrative. If you’re an ardent fan, you’ll know what I mean. There’s just something about HP.

During this rereading, the most recent of at least a dozen, something stopped me dead in my tracks: The systematic abuse of Neville Longbottom, an anxious, downtrodden student whose brilliance remains hidden for most of the series because he is discouraged from gaining confidence. I’m not in the habit of armchair diagnosis, and I won’t try to guess whether Neville was disabled, but I do know that his anxiety and slower processing of educational materials were rarely addressed in a meaningful way. He was either ignored or berated for his struggles, so much so that a villain posing as a kindly teacher was able to manipulate him with sickening ease by being minimally supportive toward him.

The closer I looked, the more I found to relate to in Neville’s experiences at school. As a blind person who sometimes had trouble processing information in the same way my classmates did, I am familiar with the deep shame of feeling stupid, incompetent, behind. Helpful Hermiones have leaned over to whisper in my ear, less because they were altruistic than because it was painful to watch me flounder. I was a decent student in most respects, which gave me a leg up Neville didn’t have. Even so, the highly visual way most subjects were taught did a number on my confidence. So did the undiagnosed mental health condition and chronic pain issue that I didn’t have the language to describe at the time, guaranteeing I’d go without help for both.

To be crystal clear, I’ve never experienced abuse on par with what Neville endures from Severus Snape, the teacher who bullied him with astonishing regularity. No one was going around poisoning my pets. But I have dissolved in shame as grownups in charge of my educational development belittled me, because they mistook my anxiety for laziness, felt overwhelmed by their inexperience with my need for accommodations, or lacked the patience to wait around while the clumsy blind kid tried to keep up. When I shut down completely in sheer self-defence, their diagnosis of ‘lazy, passive kid’ was confirmed.

Most of my educational experiences were positive, so that I eventually developed the confidence we see Neville embody in his later years. I think most who knew me as a student will be shocked to hear that there was anything negative going on, surrounded as I was by Sprouts and Lupins who liked and respected me. With encouragement and support from dozens of adults, I transformed from a shy, passive mouse into a slightly-less-shy, proactive professional who is always up for beheading snakes and fighting evil. (By snakes, I mean writer’s block. By evil, I mean people who refuse to embrace plain language. Tomato, tomahto.)

So, no, there was nothing Dickensian, or even particularly Harry Potter-esque about my school days. Yet, I can’t help relating to Snape’s victims. as I read about Neville’s toad being tortured, occlumency lessons that involve insults and shouting, Hermione’s appearance and personality being mocked by a teacher entrusted with the education of young children, I wonder at the ease with which many Harry Potter fans have eagerly welcomed his redemptive narrative arc. Somehow, the man so abusive that he scared Neville more than anything in the world—and this is a kid from a sometimes-abusive family whose parents were tortured beyond imagining—becomes a sympathetic, even romantic figure.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, especially if you’ve never known what it’s like to be bullied by an educator. Being mistreated by your peers is one thing. Disabled kids practically expect that. Being targeted by an authority figure is wildly different. I’d wager plenty of Harry Potter fans have never been called babyish, stupid or ‘unlikely to amount to much’ by people who are meant to guide and encourage them. Assuming you’ve never been alone behind a closed door with someone who terrified you because they had the power to make your school life unbearable, who refused to accept you were genuinely doing your best with what you had, then it might be simple enough for you to dismiss Snape’s behaviour as entertaining, or at least excusable. The man was a hero, right? He probably hated teaching, anyway. He couldn’t be expected to suffer fools like Neville.

Plenty of HP fans have experienced exactly that, though, and maybe that’s why these books have always struck a chord with the lonely and marginalized, with kids who felt small and Neville-like. Lots of us had our Snape growing up. Lots of us dreamed of a Dumbledore who would swoop in and put a stop to the injustice. Lots of us clung to these books because they told a better story than the one we were living. These books promised us that one day, we’d be rescued, or become powerful enough to rescue ourselves.

But these very same books largely failed to recognize the trauma inflicted by heroic, “bravest man I knew” Snape. Harry names his child after a man who delighted in making children miserable, and everyone seems fine with that, I guess? How has this never bothered me as much as it does right now? Where have I been?

Since I’m an insufferable optimist these days, I decided I had to move beyond this new understanding to something I could use. So I thought about who Neville becomes at the end of the series, the way he takes the good, does his best to drown out the bullying, and builds a full, compassionate, heroic life. As an adult, he is a respected educator, one who, I feel certain, actively seeks out the lonely and marginalized to show them their hidden potential. In a way, he redeems what was done to him, not through punishment or revenge, but through a life well and graciously lived.

In a less impressive, unconscious way, I have done the same. I have taken the good, tried to drown out the bad, and grown into a fairly capable adult who does what she can to help those around her. And I’ve done a ton of work to understand those who harmed me, because forgiveness is so much easier, at the end of the day, than resentment.

Redemption is neither cheap nor easy. I still wake trembling from occasional nightmares. I still sometimes fall into shame spirals that have their roots in childhood school experiences. There are moments when I wander into a maze of contradictory what-ifs: What if I’d been smarter, or worked harder, or stayed even quieter, or been less frustrating, or cried less, or spoken out more, or tried to explain, or gotten that mental health diagnosis sooner, or been a better blind person, or, or, or…

Self-blame is seductive, because it gives me the pleasant illusion that I had control over powerful grownups, even though that’s a ridiculous notion. Telling myself a soothing story in which I could have been treated better if I’d just tried a little harder is comforting in the moment. Still, I know that the best way to redeem this narrative arc is to live well in the present, to seek out the marginalized and reveal the potential they don’t know they have because they’re too busy holding back tears or trying hard to please the people who bully them. I can pour enough good into their lives to balance things out, at least a little. And a little can go a long way. It did for me.

Like Snape, the tiny minority of educational professionals who mistreated me as a kid have redemptive arcs of their own, perhaps as compelling and surprising as his. Unlike Snape, they usually had more understandable reasons for how they behaved. They did what they did out of frustration, bitterness, ignorance, even what they must have imagined to be tough love. Some were so invested in my success they inadvertently pushed me hard in the opposite direction. Driven by determination, by fear, by overwork and stress, they caused a kid who loved learning to dread school and mistrust her own worth. None of it is okay. All of it is redeemable.

If I choose to, I can play a small part in that redemption, by living well and replacing old, trauma-soaked patterns with positive ones. I can’t decapitate my trauma with a big shiny blade, but this cycle of hurt people hurting people is an evil I can fight, a dark lord I can vanquish because I’m a grownup now. I have a voice now. I can make changes now. I am not a child, and I am not trapped. I am more free, more courageous than that grade-school mouse could have dreamed.

There will be no final atonement, no reckoning. No one is likely to crawl out of the woodwork and say, “Meagan, I apologize for X Y and Z. I’m sorry I stood by and let this happen. I’m sorry I didn’t encourage you. I’m sorry I let my frustration and fear turn to judgment and shame. I’m sorry I mocked you for crying instead of sitting with you in your pain. I’m sorry I was so often the source of that pain.”

Knowing this, I am no longer bitter, or angry, or afraid. I am no longer waiting for an apology. I am no longer wishing for a Dumbledore to appear and see justice done. I am holding the humanity and well-meaning efforts of those who have damaged me in tension with the knowledge that their actions were not my fault, in no way deserved. I am impossibly full of hope.

Hope is not a sword, but it’s enough.

5 Reasons Hogwarts Would Be A Terrible Idea (If you’re Blind)

Ah, Hogwarts. Harry potter fans worldwide would secretly love to receive an acceptance letter—and that includes grownups. A Hogwarts education would make my communications degree seem pretty dry in comparison. Who needs PR skills when you can modify someone’s memory after the latest publicity scandal? Who needs powers of persuasion when you can slip someone a love potion? (I’m known for my ethics. Ask anyone.)

Since we enjoy overthinking, Gregg and I put together a post that explores what it would be like to be a blind student at Hogwarts as we know it. As with most areas of life, blind people have to face the music: Hogwarts, as described in Rowling’s books, anyway, would be a nightmare. We’d soon be begging to go home to screen readers and staircases that don’t lead somewhere different every day. Speaking of which …

1. Accessibility would be a distant dream.

These days, blind people in developed countries take certain things for granted much of the time. In Hogwarts, though, most of those coping mechanisms would be quite out of reach, owing to the school’s negative effect on electricity and technology in general. Computers, the internet, cell phones, embossers and scanners would all be useless at Hogwarts, forcing blind students and their professors to find inventive ways around these limitations. We would likely be limited to braille, and would need an educational assistant who could transcribe our work and assignments for us. While sighted students could take a trip to the library in order to do research, we would have to get a considerable amount of help to find not only the books we wanted, but the materials within them.
(Can you imagine asking Madam Pinse to help you search through an entire shelf of books? I wouldn’t dare, personally.)

Classes themselves might also be tricky. Potions and Transfiguration often rely on colour as an indicator when a spell or potion has been done right. (Good luck asking Snape to help you with anything ever. Unless your last name is Malfoy, forget it.)
Divination relies very heavily on sight, since most of it seems to involve studying tea leaves and crystal balls. Astronomy might be a little easier, but stargazing without working eyes is out of the question. At higher levels, nonverbal spells which give some sort of visual signal when cast would be much harder to dodge if you weren’t able to see them coming. Courses like Ancient Runes and Arithmancy might present unique challenges, since braille signs would have to be invented for specific symbols. Overall, being a blind witch or wizard would pose significant accessibility problems which, without proper preparation, would certainly make the lives of students and staff much more complicated.
(Uh, Professor? Where is my accommodation letter?)

2. Life would be a game of dodgeball

Hogwarts offers many forms of potential misery for a blind student. Objects always seem to be dropping or flying through the air, and not all of them are as soft as a copy of the Daily Prophet. Charms class is notorious for this, as students are often asked to transport objects from one point to another. The high number of inexperienced witches and wizards around us increases the already high chance of being hit by errant and unintended projectiles. And then there are the owls. Imagine sitting peacefully at breakfast, toast in hand, only to hear a thundering mass of birds descending from on high, most of them bearing objects that they are all too willing to bomb you with as they get close. Speaking for myself, this is not my idea of a good start to the day.
(Oh, look! There’s an owl in my milk jug again!”)

Take orientation and mobility, for instance. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to try and map routes to your classes when hallways and staircases aren’t always in the same place? And speaking of staircases, how about vanishing steps? Every ascent or descent would be an exercise in both patience and luck, as we hoped and prayed that we didn’t find ourselves trapped when a solid stair suddenly disappeared beneath one foot. Many of these trials might be alleviated by helpful students and professors, of course…but what of the portraits? The halls of Hogwarts are full of paintings all too willing to lend their voices to the chaos, and it would be easy to end up in even worse trouble by following one well-meant bit of advice or another.
(Um, thanks, Sir Cadogan…but I think I’ll just follow my heart.)

3. Get ready for the practical jokes.

We all know how much students enjoy messing with each other via hexes, jinxes, and bewitched sweets that make you turn into a canary. Imagine making yourself even more of a target simply by revealing that you’re blind. The slytherins would have a field day and, let’s be honest, Fred and George might, too. We’d like to think the twins have a sense of morality, but who really knows?

We can’t see spells coming or react to them very quickly. Even if we are expecting them, we’d have to remain in a state of constant vigilance (see what I did there?) at all times. School is stressful enough without having to hide in the common room under a pile of books we can’t even read. Madam Pomfrey would get to know us in a real hurry.

Who says all the interference would come from students? We wouldn’t put it past Snape to slip something in our drinks if he suspected we’d been stealing his bezoars again. At Hogwarts, nothing is sacred.

4. Say hello to mass marginalization.

Blind people are marginalized enough in our own world, and we don’t imagine the wizarding world would be any kinder to us. Forget (mostly) harmless practical jokes: we might be facing total exclusion from significant portions of Hogwarts culture. Picture it: the Great Hall is buzzing with excitement. A quidditch match—the most important of the season—is about to begin. We go outside to the pitch, and try to follow the game using the patchy commentary Rowling’s characters tend to provide. We’d have access to tiny snatches of what’s actually happening, but pick up most of our cues from crowd reaction. This is not unlike other sports, but with other sports you have professional commentators. Oh yeah, and forget actually playing quiditch. Even if we could devise a way to play, I don’t think anyone would be willing to let us try.
(Oh, well, we would…but the paperwork, you know…)

I can’t even guarantee that Dumbledore would step in. He’s not exactly known for being on the ball. He’s a great man, we know, we know…but pensive and constantly-absorbed would be putting it mildly.

Then, there’s the darker side of the coin. The wizarding world is as filled with bigotry and hatred as our own, and since the community is so insular, it’s even worse. We already know how shabbily “half breeds” are treated; even gorgeous, powerful centaurs aren’t immune to ministry prejudice and control. Imagine, then, how blind people might be treated? At best, we’ll be “taken care of”, and at worst, we’ll be the recipients of unspeakable hatred. I don’t think Voldemort and his band of merry Death Eaters would object to polishing us off for the fun of it.
(Where am I? Where am I? C’mon, guess! How many fingers am I holding up? Crucio!)
This brings us to our next point…

5. We would always be a liability.

Time and time again, we’re told how, in the heat of battle, it is difficult to dodge all the deadly curses flying about. As we’ve already mentioned, being endangered by flying things would be one of the most significant issues exacerbated by blindness. As Rowling has already shown us, Hogwarts is not a perfect stronghold. During the multiple battles that have taken place there, we would not have stood a chance. Even if we were capable of avoiding stray spells long enough to duel with someone, I doubt many wizards would allow things to get that far. Dumbledore would hide us behind reanimated statues, and the rest would banish us to dark corners where we won’t be hurt. Of course, what this translates to is “You can’t hold your own, and you’re a liability. I don’t want to have to worry about you while I’m fighting the good fight.”

The general assumption that blind people can’t defend ourselves is completely bogus, though there are some undeniable disadvantages that make us prime targets. However, all the self-defence skills in the world won’t save you from a ricocheting killing curse.
(On your left! Your left! Sorry—my le–Oops…)

It’s pretty depressing to be “in the way” all the time, and that would only get worse at Hogwarts, where people are in a lot more peril than any “normal” kid would ever be.

But wait—it’s not all bad!

With all the things that might go badly for a blind Hogwarts student, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention a few potential perks. Whether or not they act as suitable compensation for all the headache, though, is up for debate.

You might be immune to the basilisk’s stare. I say “might” because we frankly don’t know enough about how exactly that petrification spell works. And nothing stops the beast from biting you just because you can’t see it, so this is a mixed blessing.

Invisibility cloaks aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be. In the novels, when Harry and friends don the cloak, it’s as if they disappear completely. People rarely hear, smell or sense them as they pass. Being blind means that we’re likely to be more aware of what our other senses are telling us; as such, it would be harder to slip past us while wearing an invisibility cloak.

The Mirror of Erised would be powerless against us. This device is supposed to show you your greatest desire when you look into it, but without the ability to see, the mirror would be nothing more than a sheet of glass in a peculiar frame.

So, friends all, don’t despair if you don’t receive your Hogwarts letter. You can probably put your time to better use anyway. For example, you could go out into the community and be a general inspiration! Wouldn’t that be nice? Who needs witchcraft and wizardry, anyway? Not us!