COLUMN: Harry Potter and the mysterious childhood lessons

Saturday, July 24, 2010 | 9:52 p.m. CDT

Looking back, I guess I was just cross-dressing. 

As an 11-year-old, though, all I was aware of was the fact I had the coolest Halloween costume on my block — except, perhaps, for that kid whose parents always dressed him in ironic cultural pun outfits that none of the other children understood. While my neighbor Joey was focused on literally reinterpreting the concept of the the Iron Curtain, I had dressed as a figure skater, a girl in a poodle skirt and Nickelodeon’s “Doug” (my dad went as Quail Man). One particularly uninspired year, I just put a tiny sombrero on my sheltie.

But 2000 blew them all out of the water. This is because that year, in my favorite costume of all time, I was approximately 30 percent certain that I could actually perform magic for one night. After all, receiving candy for free is a pretty magical thing. In a cape, a Hogwarts scarf and coke-bottle glasses sans lenses, I waited impatiently as my mom drew a lightning bolt on my forehead with her eyeliner and silently wished that I could remember the spell for how to make slow moms hurry up and let their children collect Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

As if my plastic wand heard my crabby wish, she finished, asked me one last time why I didn’t just dress as Hermione (because she’s a bossy know-it-all), sighed and closed the door behind me.

Later that night, as I traded my gummy Lifesavers for my little sister’s precious Reese's, I realized I had learned an important lesson that night: Because the movies had not yet hit theaters, most door-opening adults did not understand what was on my forehead. Nor did they really care who Harry Potter was. If I didn’t correct them when they halfheartedly admired my “adorable witch costume,” I got more candy than when I lectured on the coolest wizard since Merlin. Lesson learned meant candy earned.

I bring this up because I’m currently rereading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone." To this day, I associate the series with the taste of orange soda because on the days each novel came out I traditionally holed myself up in a homemade fort and took in nothing but Sunkist until I had finished the latest tome. But even more than a craving for sodas loosely based on fruits, rereading the novel 11 years later has reminded me of a few heavy childhood lessons, moral and otherwise. 

Lesson 1: Cool kids don’t get plastic surgery. Harry Potter has a freaking lightning bolt-shaped scar on his face. He had glasses, and despite the fact that he was always pretty dashing in my mind, he is not your typical babe. Dude had a cape. When I was in elementary school, I developed a minor case of skin cancer on my forehead, but I never cared about the surgery and bandages because I secretly hoped that I would lift them and find a tiny lighting bolt of my own. I was pretty disappointed in the 3-inch gray line I discovered, but I wouldn't dream of covering it up. It's better than being connected to Kevin Bacon: In a weird way, I feel like I’m only one step from Harry Potter.

Lesson 2: It’s OK to be a (huge) nerd. Did I mention that Harry had a cape? He and his friends played wizard chess, which is probably just a slightly cooler, non-Muggle alternative to Dungeons & Dragons. Or a more literal version of Magic: The Gathering. It took him an inordinate number of books to get a girlfriend. This lesson was especially cool because I was a nerd, too. In Harry’s early-Millennium heyday, I even used the phrase “booya.” Frequently.

Lesson 3: Befriend a very large man (unless it is Dudley or Mr. Dursley). I have no examples of this lesson other than that it legitimately seemed to me that enormous people must be enormously cool. Hagrid fit both of those categories, and I ignored the idea of cause and effect to focus on the the fact that he a) had a dragon, b) had an accent, c) had a minor drinking problem and d) was generally pretty awesome. Dudley, Harry’s hideously ill-mannered cousin, was also pretty huge, but only horizontally. So I guess what I really learned as a child from the book is that people who are tall and wide can be trusted, and apparently people who are just wide should be viewed with suspicion.

Lesson 4: House elves pretty much suck. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If I had a pet or a magical servant (or even an extremely awkward friend) that was at all like Dobby, I would probably be the one hitting myself in the face repeatedly. Because I have always wanted to be a writer, I once sent J.K. Rowling a letter. I was surprised when she wrote back, delighted that the stationary involved magic-themed clip art and relieved to find there was not a single house elf on it. Dobby is the Jar Jar Binks of the "Harry Potter" series.

Lesson 5: Good always conquers evil. Somehow. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy really hit this hard when I read the series later, but Harry made it easy. Like some hyper-evolved, über-sinister bully, Lord Voldemort hassled Harry throughout seven years of his life, and even when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named won small battles, Harry (spoiler alert) won the school and eventually the war. He also actually had a face, unlike Voldemort, which, let's face it, is half the battle.

In real time, this was more than seven years of my life.  Although for the first few I was actually a little nervous to say “Voldemort” aloud, I was always devoted to Harry, right down to that unfeminine Halloween costume. But thankfully, aside from some very poor highway mergers, laundry machine mishaps and an advanced statistics class, I have not had much experience with true evil in my life. And maybe — in some pseudo-magical way — I have literary lessons to thank for that. I do still really like Reese's cups.

Now, if only I didn't know so many Voldemorts.

Kelsey Whipple is the deputy editor of Vox. She was almost sorry to diss Hermione above, but it needed to be said.

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Alysha Love July 25, 2010 | 12:09 p.m.

I had the exact same problem with my Harry Potter costume—everyone thought I was a witch.

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