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On Harry Potter and Privilege

by Kristen Trudo, St. Louis 15, Graduate Support Assistant, De La Salle Middle School. Loyola Marymount University 15. 

Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Jesuit Volunteer Reflects blog.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps brought me here—some 1800 miles from my home in California. To this place where leaves actually change, falling from the trees when October arrives. To La Salle Middle School. Where I walk with ninety students whose life experiences have been vastly different from my own. I am learning every day. About St. Louis. And community. And privilege.

It was the first read-a-thon of the school year at La Salle. About a hundred of us gathered in the gym–blankets and pillows everywhere. I decided on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–it felt nostalgic and warm, somehow. Yet I was struck by the realization that I have yet to find a student who likes Harry Potter. As my mind worked, I began to wonder about the privilege of using your imagination. If, perhaps, the act of picking up a book and traveling to a different world is an invitation that is not truly given to all.

I’ve never been in a place where I could not share a mutual love for the stories that defined my childhood reading experience. So it would be easy to chalk up my ongoing “survey results” to a general dislike for reading. Except that one of the students who said no to Harry Potter had told me how much he loved reading. Another talked about his favorite book, about an African American teen. Living in a homeless shelter. Father in jail. Mother emotionally unavailable. And a girlfriend to whom he doesn’t feel he measures up. The book was called Tyrell.

Tyrell made sense to him. So I wondered about Harry Potter, and what it would be like for a young black boy, born into poverty and violence and tragedy, to read about an eleven-year-old whose life falls into place overnight; all because he was lucky enough to survive the misfortune that killed his parents. Harry, who only had to travel to Gringotts to claim “mounds of gold coins. Columns of silver. Heaps of little bronze Knuts.” Harry, who quickly learned that the Wizarding World was just waiting to rescue him. All because he was the Boy Who Lived.

This is not the world my students know. They know the announcements at the end of the school day to “be extra careful” because there were gunshots only a few blocks away. They know the headache that follows a night with no dinner–and the shame of succumbing to tears at school because the hunger is overwhelming. Eventually, they know the story of getting accepted into a university that they have no means of paying for when the following September arrives.

This was not the world I grew up in. Despite our shared complexion. Because I could huddle behind my babysitter’s couch and read Harry Potter, never having to worry about going hungry that night. That lack of worry meant that my imagination could journey to Hogwarts; and that I, too, could sit nervously below the Sorting Hat. P97A4666

I say these things not to claim that an entire demographic doesn’t like Harry Potter. Or even to say, definitively, that the reason my students don’t like it is because they cannot begin to fathom such a turn of fate. What I am saying is that I wonder how the experience of reading might change for them if their lives weren’t constantly occupied by tragedy. I wonder if they, too, could sit behind the couch, imagining that the worst of their problems included losing a Quidditch match, or learning how to properly execute a spell.

I wonder if the invitation to have your life changed by a book is truly universal; or if that opportunity is only given to those who walk through life without the loads that my students are so often asked to carry. And I wonder if we will ever enter a world in which their ability to survive tragedy–and to continue to live–will be deemed as awe-inspiring as the unlikely survival of a one-year-old wizard whose life fell into place a decade later on a random day in July.