Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sympathy for the Slytherins

You are eleven years old.

You've known all your life that mummy and daddy were wizards.  You knew that one day you'd be shipped off to Hogwarts, as is the family tradition.  That did nothing to ease the pain when, not long after your tenth birthday, they escorted you to platform 9 3/4, shoveled you aboard a train full of complete strangers, and waved good-bye.  A tiny child, you were shipped off into the unknown, into a land of monsters and mystery, without a single friend or guide.

At the end of the journey, you were brought into a massive chamber of cold stone in which hundreds of people you'd never met stared at you.  Propped up on a chair, you were told that your fragile adolescent psyche was crippled; that you were no good, because you possessed too great a desire to achieve.  This assessment was made not by an adult who carefully got to know you, but by a talking hat that sat on your head for a few seconds.  You were sorted, through no choice of your own, into Slytherin house.  At the moment this occurred, three quarters of the students observing, none of whom had ever exchanged a word with you, hated your guts.  You were shuffled off to the basement, made to live beneath the lake where the light is green, told to identify with snakes, and placed in the care of a pale, stringy-haired sadist.

What turned it around for you was the company of your peers.  Though the majority of the school despised you, you were not alone.  Those who'd been sorted as you had--the other adolescents whom the hat had cast away as too ambitious for their own good--took you in.  They taught you that to aspire to greatness was not evil, that to believe in yourself was no sin.

And with that in mind, you and your new friends--loathed and despised by all--set to work.

You worked your tails off.  You put your nose to the grindstone, day after day.  In the classroom, on the quidditch pitch, in every available environment, you dedicated yourself to mastering the school's objective system of achievement.  An objective point system, set in stone since time immemorial, tallied your progress.  Every student in your house--from those on the brink of graduation into adulthood to the tiniest first-form, yourself--gave what he or she could.

It was the hardest thing you had ever done.  It was brutal.  But your ambition--that which others despised in you--saw you through.  And in time, the system taught you that ambition need not be selfish, because every element of glory you sought also glorified your house--those who'd taken you in when no one else would.  You and your friends--the despised, the outcasts, those who'd failed as children to live up to the standards of a hat--won the day.  At the end of the year, after any achievement was tallied, after every professor's assessment was taken into account, you had won more points than any rival house.

The prize was justly yours, the great hall decked out in your house's colors, your house's emblem posted proudly behind the masters' table.  Every student and teacher gathered to recognize your achievement.

And it was at that point that the school's headmaster--a former member of your archrival house--arrived on the scene.  And he declared, "recent events must be taken into account."

He then proceeded to award a completely arbitrary number of points to three first year students from your archrival--again, HIS OWN FORMER HOUSE--for behavior which constituted a violation of the school's rules and his own explicit instructions.  To the leader of the brat pack--a priggish young four-eyed dolt who'd never spoken so much a word to you all year, and who was widely adored by the faculty by virtue of having had the right parents, and who wouldn't have even lived to the end of the year had your own head of house not repeatedly intervened on his behalf--the headmaster awarded a point total equal to a ninth of the points your house had earned all year.

Even this was not enough to elevate his old house--which by the objective standards of the game, had finished DEAD LAST--into first place.

Which was why, at that point, after awarding the rule-breakers an arbitrary point total to bring them nearly equal to you and your friends, that the headmaster ALSO awarded one of their housemates an equally arbitrary number of points for attempting to stop them from completing the tasks that earned them the points in the first place.  And it was these arbitrary points which, finally, were enough to put them past your house and into first place.

All of this chicanery could have been completed before the school assembled in the Great Hall, before your ten-year-old spirits were elevated by the promise of imminent victory, before your heart was given a chance to leap at the promise of some scrap of adult approval.  But that would not have been sufficiently theatrical. That would not have satisfied the desire of all those you'd beaten to see you and your friends humiliated.  So, instead, the pompous old gasbag declared, "We need a change of decoration."  And your banners were magically ripped from the walls and replaced with those of your archrivals, as the entire school applauded the justice of it.  Because all agreed:  you, ten-year-old you, were The Bad Guy.  Because The Hat Said So.

What did it feel like, to look across the hall, at the golden boy, beaming with joy, as all of his housemates clapped him on the back for having been born special?  How did it feel to know that your entire house's year of continual toil was deemed less important, by those in authority, than the illegal exploits of your rivals?  What was it like to know that your obedience to authority was held in such contempt by the authorities themselves--to see them punish you for obedience, and reward those who disobeyed?

That summer, why did your parents choose to send you back?  Why did they send these educators, who had demonstrated such spectacular disregard for your efforts, hundreds more galleons to put you through another year of the same?  Why didn't they transfer you to Durmstrang the moment they heard what had happened?

And now, a year later, you are eleven, in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and the next class of first-years are being sorted, their destiny decided in an instant by an item of apparel without the slightest scrap of training in adolescent psychology.  And you glimpse Harry Potter across the hall, smiling smugly in the company of his friends...

...don't you, just for a moment, want to kill him?

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