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.