We Were All There Together, or Being 14 Sucks, But It’ll Be Okay
I remember exactly where I was when I realized it: in the back garden, hanging out towels to dry. I was 14. And suddenly, clutching a wet towel and thinking about Remus Lupin (a pursuit to which, at the age of 14, I devoted an impressive amount of effort), it actually hit me properly for the very first time.
I hadn’t got my Hogwarts letter. I was too old. It wasn’t coming.
I can’t remember what I did with the towel.
Is it embarrassing to say that part of me was genuinely, badly disappointed? Well, I was. I don’t think anyone much enjoys being 14, and I was the kind of 14-year-old who made for a walking target. I was lanky and ginger and insisted on sticking precisely to the school uniform code because it felt like a really important way to show respect for my educational institution (this is true. I was possibly the only person in the school’s history who both tucked in her shirt and wore the regulation underwear, scratchy and uncomfortable as it was). None of this was my fault, although I didn’t help matters by getting my glasses and braces matched to each other in the same shade of primrose pink that year. I lived in a world where there was a social hierarchy, and I was definitely, definitively at the bottom of it; I didn’t live in a cupboard or anything, but sometimes I sort of wished I did.
On the anniversary of Harry Potter’s first Hogwarts letter arriving, it’s interesting to mull on the many reasons that we all fell hard – and simultaneously, on a global scale – in love with J.K. Rowling’s books: magic, camaraderie and friendship, characters, storytelling, the intrigue of the author’s own story, what kids these days call “the feels.” But we can’t underestimate how powerful it was for us to see one 11-year-old boy – someone in whom so many of us recognized a bit of ourselves – get the escape that most of us had fantasized about to some degree. I bet if you made a Venn diagram of Harry Potter fans and people who had a bit of a rubbish time at school there would be a pretty significant overlap, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Fantasy is, at its core, a means of escape. And when we saw Harry Potter – a specky kid whose tiny world is built around a miserable, joyless existence – getting a letter telling him he’s destined for something more, we wanted that, too. The significance of a Hogwarts letter, as those of us who yearned for one know, was this: It says, essentially, “Yup, we know you’re different. We know you don’t fit in here. But that’s Okay. There’s somewhere else that’s full of your people, where you’ll definitely belong.”
Besides all that, you’ve got to agree that our first proper introduction to the magical world is a pretty sweet one: Not only is Harry’s letter addressed to exactly where he’s at, but also, when it fails to be successfully delivered, Harry gets sent a further metric squillion of them, presumably because Albus Dumbledore is perverse like that and finds it tremendously entertaining.
Not everything in Harry’s life after a giant shows up with an umbrella and a birthday cake to liberate him from his awful family is easy; he goes on to face death, lost youth, war, annoying people, and the court of public opinion (yikes). But things are never quite as bad as they were before his Hogwarts letter, when he had nobody at all. The Harry Potter books are about lots of things: choosing between the right way and the easy way, the potential for redemption for even the worst of wrongs, the power of light in the darkest of places, and the overwhelming potency of sacrificial love. But just as much as those things, the books are a testament to what you can do with just one or two other people at your side, no matter how small or young you are. The moment Harry’s letter arrives marks the point where he’ll never have to be quite alone in any endeavor, ever again.
I think that’s why the Harry Potter online fandom exploded so quickly and why it remains such a powerful online force to this day: the fact that to so many people (including some of the films’ actors like Evanna Lynch or Jessie Cave, who have been warmly embraced by the Harry Potter community for their unique, awesome selves) the books signified not being alone and a means of escape from a status quo where it can be hard to fit in. And J.K. Rowling absolutely gets that; she’s not only there for her fans in difficult times, but she also recently made the pronouncement that all of us who spent years waiting on our Hogwarts letters had our souls soothed to read—our Hogwarts squad was real all along.
I’m no longer 14 (thank goodness), and I’ve long outgrown the feeling that I don’t belong anywhere, although 14-year-old me would much rather have had a Hogwarts letter than cheesy platitudes about how It Gets Better. I’ve learned – and Harry Potter played no small part in this – that I shouldn’t need to become someone I’m not in order to be accepted. I’ve found my place, Hogwarts letter or no. And I’ve discovered, too, the power of having friends by your side that allows you to face down anything that comes your way. But if the letter arrived tomorrow – if Hogwarts suddenly started accepting late-blooming New Zealand ladies of almost 30 – would I go?
Heck yes. Of course I would.