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Harry Potter and the Deep South: My Literacy Awakening by Elisabeth Hieber

When considering my literacy development, the most memorable moment is not obvious. It did not involve the process that I went through to learn to read. It did not have anything to do with the first words I put on paper. Additionally, even though my access to the written word was never restricted or limited, as it was for famous writers Malcolm X and Sherman Alexie, and I had every opportunity to read and write, my major literacy awakening did not occur until after I had a reasonably advanced mastery of the English language.

Reading and writing have always been an important part of my life. I have grown up with them like two old friends. In fact, my earliest memory involves staring at a complicated book about lizards – the kind with more words than pictures. I was “reading” it on the couch of our very first home in Georgia, while my parents argued in the other room. I wanted them to stop fighting, so I kept pretending that I was reading aloud each and every word to distract them with my prodigious intellect, when in fact, I could only recognize basic articles like “the” and “a.” I could not have been older than three at the time. However, as striking as this memory is, it is not the most important event in my literacy development.

My most memorable experience came when I was much older, directly after the summer between third and fourth grade. As a family of Ohio expatriates, we were living in Oakwood, a small town in Hall County, Georgia. At the time, I was absolutely obsessed with all things Harry Potter. My parents gave me the first three books about the adventurous teen wizard, and I read them lying on the sun-bleached boards of our neighbor’s dock on Lake Lanier, listening to the water lapping up on the red clay banks. I would imagine that any day I was going to get my own letter via owl to go to Hogwarts.

However, my imagination was not enough to sustain me. I needed the story to continue. When school started again at Oakwood Elementary, I realized that a fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released the preceding July.  On the first trip to the school library of the year, I was desperate to obtain that book. It was nowhere to be found. When I asked the head school librarian where it was, she refused to acknowledge my question.  Confused, I found the assistant librarian, Ms. Sloan, and also asked her. She said they did not have it and suggested I try Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind instead. I took the book and left the library in a state of thorough confusion and frustration.

The weeks went on, and I still could not locate the book anywhere. I asked my mother to drive me to various libraries around the county, and as my main and most constant literary sponsor, she was happy to do so. But I could not find the book anywhere in all of Hall County. I would begrudgingly select a consolation prize at each and every library, and read the books with a fraction of the enthusiasm. Some of the most memorable were Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Jack London’s White Fang – if there was anything I loved almost as much as Harry Potter during this time period, it was stories about animals.

Little did I know that my fruitless searching was finally going to result in victory. In class one day, a boy delivered a note to me that requested my presence in the library and was signed by the assistant librarian. I walked down the stifling hallway, wondering with a certain amount of trepidation what the assistant librarian could possibly want from me. Was Gone with the Wind overdue?

I entered the library, and Ms. Sloan ushered me into the room directly behind the circulation desk.

“I have something to show you,” she whispered. Her hushed tones combined with the overt obscurity of the location of our meeting reminded me of my fourth-grade conceptualization of a speakeasy. She walked me to a bookcase running along the back wall of the room, and pulled out a thick book placed discreetly near the bottom.

“I have it – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” She smiled at me as my jaw dropped. “You can read it, but you can’t check it out from the library – this is my personal copy. You can read it only in this room, during your recess.”

I was overjoyed. But I wasn’t elated enough to disregard the secrecy shrouding the arrangement.

“Why doesn’t the library have a copy to check out?” I asked, as confused as ever.  Ms. Sloan looked at me, and I remember her face to this day: a combination of concern, regret, and strained severity.

“The school doesn’t have any Harry Potter books, because the school district banned them. Do you know what that means? Banned books?”

“Banned books? Why would anyone ban books? I thought reading was a good thing.” Though sincere, I will not deny I was a bit of a brownnoser at the age of ten.

Ms. Sloan then patiently informed me what banned books were, in terms of my limited experience within the education system. When the content of a book is deemed too inappropriate, or too controversial, the school district sees fit to ban them, meaning free access to them is barred in public schools and libraries. The concept made sense to me, but I simply could not understand what was so inappropriate or controversial about a teen wizard. Despite all of my confusion, I accepted it, and proceeded to read the book, sequestered in the hot backroom of the library, until I finished it a week later.

Here is where a little context about the climate of the area where I grew up might be appropriate and enlightening. Hall County is a small region in northern Georgia where politically conservative, predominantly Southern Baptist, and Confederate pride and bitterness over “The War of Northern Aggression” still rang true. Hall County did not tolerate Yankees, Democrats, or the evil witchcraft practiced by Harry Potter and his friends. So in an effort to staunch the flow of iniquity and corruption of the youth, the school district banned the book, and said nothing about random book burnings at the local Baptist church.

No other event influenced my literacy development as much as this one. From this point on, I put a certain value in further developing a purposeful relationship with reading, writing, and literature. For as long as I can remember, literacy has always been a part of my life. I simply viewed it as a fact of existence, as something natural, passive, and organic. Realizing that reading and writing could be restricted caused me to face the reality that literacy was participatory. I had to choose to develop my skills, choose to seek out literature, forge my own path through literacy, and find my own truths to be self-evident.

Though not as momentous, my decision to advance my literacy development was similar to the one that Sherman Alexie had to make to be successful on the Spokane Indian Reservation in order to thrive beyond expectation into his adult life. In “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me,” he states, “As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world…I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into the night, until I could barely keep my eyes open” (364-5). Alexie had to overcome internal and external societal pressure to succeed; in this way, his literacy became both resilient and purposeful. It was not just an activity; it became a tool. Like Alexie, I realized two mutually supportive facts in that hot backroom of a library in Georgia. Literacy did not come naturally, and literacy can be restricted. That day solidified my resolve to develop it, in order to recognize and subvert any attempts to limit my access to it. My literacy was my only tool to preserve that literacy.

Additionally, the inaccessibility of Harry Potter impressed upon me that reading and writing were powerful tools, not just activities that I had to do in school, or practices I enjoyed as a hobby.  They could communicate ideas and ways of thinking that were pervasive and influential, that authority figures feared enough to restrict and ban. Conversely, literacy can be manipulated by authority figures to project an agenda. Malcolm X discusses the legacy of white Europeans slanting history to objectify, exploit, and eliminate the role of blacks in “Learning to Read.” He states: “You can hardly show me a black adult in America – or a white one, for that matter – who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man’s role” (356). Malcolm X’s literacy development started with learning to read, but expanded further with his realization of just how much written history has been manipulated to serve an ulterior motive. “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened up to me,” he states. “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive” (360). In a way, I came to a similar conclusion.  Being able to read and write are helpful skills, but being able to understand their power and their ability to change the course of history provides a level of cognition that is illuminating.

After my chance insight into the insurmountable significance of literacy, I was left with an all-encompassing desire for more. It felt like an aching, perceivable hunger. I read everything with a distinct sense of desperation, from Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, because I had a fleeting feeling that all of it could be taken away from me at any time, and that advancing my literacy was the only way I could keep it in my possession. As I grew older and my reading level progressed, my appetite never abated. I developed a focused, progressive passion for learning that has infused my collegiate studies. To this day, I often find myself wandering the massive university library, independent of a specific academic need, in the hopes of discovering meaningful literature and lessons from another time. I realize that, in order to affect the course of history in my own meaningful way, I must be, to quote Malcolm X, as “mentally alive” as possible.

To this day, I am overwhelmingly grateful for Ms. Sloan. In retrospect, I realize just how much she risked and sacrificed in order to provide me with literature that I valued. She jeopardized her job, her reputation as a librarian, and her integrity as an educator for the sake of advancing my imagination. What she gave me that day was far more precious than any Harry Potter book. I placed a new value on my literacy development, a value with a certain purpose, and an inherent association with valor and strength. Literacy changes the course of history; recognizing that power, and learning to respect it, changed the course of my life.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011. 363-65. Print

X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011. 354-60. Print.

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Elizabeth Heiber wrote this essay for an intermediate composition class at the University of Cincinnati. The essay won the prestigious Dunn Award for Writing Excellence at the 15th Annual UC Student Writing Awards Ceremony.

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