Writings: Sorted

Growing up, I was one of those "smart" children who mature a little earlier than their peers and subsequently get saddled with unrealistic expectations from adults who expect continuous out-performance (rather than what actually happened: me slowing down a bit while all the other kids caught up). I'm sure the adults meant well, but there was always so much unspoken pressure in their praise. "You could grow up to be president!" can so easily sound like "You should grow up to be president!"

This piece is a love letter to finding myself and coming to accept that I can be good without being The Best. It's a post about depression, anxiety, and anhedonia. It's a post about loving parents who don't quite understand what it feels like to be less than perfect. It's also a post about Harry Potter houses in Hogwarts and how I feel the sorting should be a yearly occurrence, because I'm a massive nerd. Trigger Warning for disordered sleep-patterns and eating-habits.


Growing up with not one but two war heroes for parents was a trip and a half. You're a little kid without the slightest inkling of what went on during the Bad Years and your parents are just these big adults in your life who feed you and read you stories and teach about forest creatures you're not supposed to talk to while alone. But when you go out in public together, to shop or house-visit or on take-your-kid-to-work days, suddenly everyone's staring at you. Not because of anything you did, but because of who you are.

Or, rather, because of who your parents are.

Look, there's her baby! Ooh, they're growing nice and big, aren't they? Time soon to send them off to school! Do you think they'll master flying as quick as their father did? He was a natural with a broom, just like his father! You know their mother was at the top of her class! And their father was no slouch either, academically, and such a sport! We're all just so excited to see what any child of those two will achieve!

I heard it all--the hopes and dreams and desires others pinned on me--and hated it all. Even Mum and Dad weren't immune to it, though they tried to hide it. At home, they would encourage me to be whatever I wanted, but I saw the way their faces lit up when we were out-and-about and people played the guessing game with them. Would I grow up to be an Auror or to work in the Ministry? Was there dragon-taming in my future? Could they expect to see me in the sky, leading our beloved sports team? Mum would give that sly smile of hers and Dad would laugh his little awkward laugh, but their eyes glittered with pride.

The adults weren't trying to load me down with their dreams. But so many people had been lost in the war and folks were desperate for a return to normalcy. They looked for any reassurance they could find, peering into the faces of every young witch and wizard for a sign that the magic community would bounce back from its loss and recover. We would be great again if strong, smart, talented, gifted children were born--ideally from the strong, smart, et cetera war heroes who already walked tall down magical streets.

Being burdened by all those expectations for as long as I could remember screwed with my head. By the time I was on the train heading to school for my first year, I had internalized a plan. I wasn't one of those kids who could say "nah, sod your expectations" and then go on to be whatever glorious self their parents didn't expect, no sir. Instead, I'd taken all those hopes and dreams of strangers as on-board as I possibly could. I needed to be somebody. I wanted to prove my worth to my parents. I longed to prove my own parents' worth, to show that they hadn't created a dud, that they hadn't squandered all their talent. I was going to join the best house, learn the best magic, become the best magic user of my generation.

The best house was Gryffindor, of course. Everyone knew that. I wasn't worried about that part, not when both my parents were from Big G. Houses ran along family lines, or at least they were supposed to. The system had changed after the war, with the Headmistress making alterations to the sorting process. Now kids were sorted yearly, rather than once-and-done at the beginning. But I wasn't worried. Some kids shuffled around a bit, I was warned, but most found a house quickly and stuck with it to the end.

My house would be Gryffindor, I knew. I felt it in my bones, in my heart, and down to my very toes. So it was understandably a bit of a shock to the system when the dirty, wrinkled, impossibly-old hat plopped onto my head shouted "Slytherin!" loud enough to echo through the great hall.


Slytherin didn't make sense. I was still in shock as the head girl led us to the house dorms. I cried into my pillow that night, and I wasn't the only one. Sniffles reverberated down the stone walls of the dungeons.

I won't say no one wanted to be in Slytherin, but the kids who did were viewed with suspicion. Slytherin's reputation wasn't entirely tarnished--there were good people, mostly dead but some still living, who'd worn the emerald green--but it wasn't a secret which house had favored the wrong side in the war. The kids who wanted to join Snake House tended to come from inbred racist families, and the worst of those assholes were bound and determined to earn their racism scout badge early. The few salvageable kids among the legacy lot were ones who'd been sheltered enough not to learn any different growing up, or were just too terrified of their parents to object, but they wised up fast once they were out of their folks' homes.

But I didn't belong here.

My parents were Gryffindors, the both of them. What would they think of me? I sent home a letter by owl, the writing as shaky as my voice as I dictated the words. The return response was agonizingly slow in coming. It said all the right things, but the tone was stilted and oddly formal, as though Mum and Dad had written it for a stranger they didn't know. They told me about Slytherins they'd known and loved, providing a short list which was damning in its brevity. Nor did their reassurances help, when I'd not asked for them. If they felt moved to insist there was nothing wrong with being a Slytherin, didn't that mean there was? Other parents didn't 'reassure' their Gryffindor kids there was nothing wrong in taking the scarlet and gold.

I told myself there had been a mistake and I only had to wait out the year. The hat had sorted me into the wrong house, but I'd get through this and be sorted properly on the next go round. Out of a desire to do something, I hit the books hard. I would learn every spell, ace every test, and score highest in flying class. I'd lift myself out of Slytherin by sheer willpower. Heck, I'd even make friends. Network. Socialize. One way or another, I'd fit into a different house. I threw myself into my studies and while I didn't ace everything, I did very well. Teachers beamed at me and swore I took after my mother. I sighed with relief and went home for the summer. Dad and I went on long flights, chasing each other through the mountains, and it was almost like we were a family again. No one mentioned emerald green or silver. We put it past us.

When the train came to take me back to school, I boarded with every appearance of the confidence I didn't have. I mingled with my friends and tried not to think about the wrinkled hat we'd soon be seeing. He would sit on my head and know what I'd made of myself, how much I'd done to improve my mind and body. He'd put me somewhere other than the house I dreaded. He would see how I'd risen to better things.

This time, when he yelled "Slytherin!" at the first brush of his brim against my hair, I choked back a sob without a single thought to my pride.


It didn't make sense. I told myself it was some kind of trick, or sabotage. Someone wanted to hurt my parents and they were taking it out on me. They'd made a lot of enemies during the war, hadn't they? Powerful ones, too. Strong enough to hex a stupid hat that didn't know anything, that didn't know me.

I tried to sulk, I really did. But the next day one of the teachers gave me a rare smile and asked if I wanted to share tea with him. Maybe he felt bad for me and my puffy eyes, I don't know. Over a steaming cup, he told me he'd known my parents when they were kids. Not as close friends, he clarified quickly; Mum and Dad were so amazing that he was too shy to talk much with them. But he watched them over the years and he knew them the way we all knew our fellow students in passing.

He told me how folks had said Dad belonged in Slytherin. Mum, too; everyone knew the only reason she hadn't joined was because of old house bias against kids born to non-magical families. They'd gone into Gryffindor, sure, but they were Slytherin at heart. Ambitious, ruthless, and willing to do whatever they had to in order to succeed. Somehow when he said those words they didn't sound as bad as they did in my head; his eyes shone over his cup while he spoke, as though he were describing virtues rather than vices. That was how my parents won the war, he explained, and saved us from doom: by turning cunning and resourcefulness into weapons. They'd had the necessary ambition to do ugly, difficult tasks in service to a goal they never lost sight of. If they'd been re-sorted today, he swore, they'd be in Slytherin with me.

I'd never thought of my parents like that, but the idea clung to me. My dreams showed images of them as students wearing the emerald green. They did the things I'd grown up hearing about--fighting the same monsters, solving the same puzzles, winning the same war--but they were Slytherin like me. Whenever I awoke, I'd lie in bed and listen to the drafts that blew through the dungeons and wonder what they would think of my dreams if I told them. I never did. I didn't want to risk their denial. The dreams were all I had to hold onto, my belief that I wasn't betraying my family by being in the wrong house.

Slowly, grudgingly, I came to accept what I was. I couldn't hold on to my anger forever; it took too much energy to maintain a bristled sulk. I no longer threw myself headfirst into my classes, but I got out of bed and attended them. I took notes on what my teachers said. I wrote bland letters home once a week like clockwork. I ate food, even when the food didn't appeal to me. I worked exactly as hard as I needed to in order to pass second year flying class. I made passable grades during end-of-year exams.

The enthusiasm I'd felt my first year was gone. I was worn out, shuffling to classes and sleeping for hours on end during the day when I should have been studying. At night I stared at the ceiling and failed to sleep despite being tired enough to weep. I was empty, a shell carting around my tattered self. But I kept going. When the emptiness pressed too hard against my chest and I couldn't breathe, I retreated to the image of Mum and Dad in my colors, smiling and proud. I held to that ideal, even if reality never quite matched up.

Summer break came. I returned home, retreated to my room, and hid behind a closed door. I slept. When I didn't sleep, I studied--or tried to. My exam grades needed shoring up if I planned to pass another year, but mostly I just needed to avoid their prying eyes staring at me like they weren't sure where they'd gone wrong. Dad didn't say much, joking over dinner but otherwise leaving me in peace. Mum made a point of asking me how I was doing, but as long as I went through the basic motions of survival--get up, eat food, shower, converse, sleep--she didn't push.

Part of me considered giving up rather than go back, butI chose to board the train back to school. I needed an education and here was as good a place as any. I would ride back with my friends, climb those dreaded steps to the front of the great hall, sit in the chair with my head held high, and wouldn't flinch when that horrible hat sent me to Snake House again. I'd even be classy about it. Maybe a nod, or a thank you. No tears this time. My fate was set and I would face it without crying or protesting or fighting. I'd do my best.

I climbed the steps. I sat in the chair. I felt the hat settle on my head. I took a deep breath.



Gryffindor! I had a vague awareness of one of my friends tugging my arm and pulling me out of the chair so the next kid in line could take my place. Scarlet and gold! I'd waited so long to wear them and now I could. But... why?

Bravery wasn't something I'd suddenly come to excel at over the summer. I'd spent the majority of my time locked in my room reading books I didn't want to read and trying to bridge the gap between the second-year education I'd gotten and the second-year education I was supposed to have. Spending my waking hours with my nose buried in a book was Ravenclaw's thing, not Gryffindor! Yet here I was being led to the old dorms where my parents used to sleep, practically carried on the arms of some of the older kids.

I wasn't going to look a gift hippogriff in the mouth. I'd finally gotten my wish, coming home to the house I'd always wanted. My friends were happy for me. I just needed to be happy for me too. I sent off a letter to Mum and Dad that night telling them the good news, and I ate so much at dinner my happily distended stomach threatened to tear open my robes. I wrapped myself in scarlet and gold blankets in bed and slept better that night than I had for ages. Instead of dreams, I found only warm peaceful darkness.

Yet gaining everything I'd hoped for precisely when I'd given up all hope was disconcerting. Mum and Dad wrote back immediately, their effusive praise and relief almost tangible on the parchment and giving more lie to the tepid reassurances I'd received when I was in Slytherin. Teachers who'd only passingly noticed me before now brightened in the hallways, and I received a thousand comments telling me I had my father's eyes, my mother's hair, his nose, her chin. I hit a growth spurt now that I was eating again yet I felt shrunken in my robes, unable to grow enough to fit these features I'd stolen from my parents.

I wore scarlet and gold and everything had changed just the way I'd always wanted it to. I was loved and accepted and celebrated. I should have been happy, yet I wasn't. The empty feelings encroached again at night; food became less satisfying, and sleep more elusive. I couldn't understand why I wasn't happy, and as the weeks slipped by the answer continued to elude me.

The problem wasn't the house itself; I was proud to have joined the Lion House. Yet now that I was here, I wasn't sure what to do. No monsters appeared in the bathrooms for me to prove myself against and no puzzles sprung up for me to wrest open. I was in my parents' house, but more than ever I felt disconnected from them. My studies improved from the abysmally low baseline I'd set the year before and my flying was good enough to get me on the team, but it all seemed to be for its own sake. I'd left emerald green behind, yet I felt like a snake eating my own tail. If I belonged in Gryffindor, why did it feel like such a bad fit?


I gravitated to the library instead of the Gryffindor common rooms. The migration was self-preservation; I couldn't study in the common rooms without someone plopping onto the couch beside me and regaling me with tales of my parents' past. Or, worse, demanding that I do the story-telling to entertain them. In the library I could find solitude to work on my assignments without interruption. It became my retreat.

Yet the more I worked among the books, the more I found a sort of home. I made a nest, with the table in the far back corner by the window becoming 'mine'. I wedged pillows and blankets between the bookcase and the wall, and these treasures were brought out after my classes. Golden pillows supported my back while a scarlet blanket kept me warm against the cool air that leaked in where window met castle stone.

In the watery light that filtered though the old glass, I read. School books for my assignments at first, but when those ran out I sought more: history, geography, magic theory. Anything I could carry back to my nest to devour. I read to pass the time, drawing out the hours until I could safely return to my bed without being pounced on. Yet as the months passed and I strained to read by candlelight in the evenings, I found myself reading for more than just the relentless march of hours every night. I read to escape, losing myself in the old histories. I read from hunger, consuming page after page of obscure magical theory. I read with wondering wide eyes, fingers brushing the pages with worshipful care as I studied strange drawings of dragons, centaurs, hippogriffs, and so much more in the encyclopedias of magical creatures.

My sleep continued to suffer, but in new and creative ways. Now I fell asleep without trouble, but went to bed later and and rose early so I could read before my morning class. Sometimes I'd lose myself so deeply in a book that when I looked up from the page, I'd passed the entire day in the library and missed class. I skipped team practice and slipped from starting lineup to secondary, but I didn't care; time in the dugout meant time reading. Dinners were spent wolfing down food as fast as I could. One night I choked on my food and the Potions teacher had to Anapneo me to save my life; after that, I was allowed to pack a snack basket to take to the library with me, if it meant I would slow down and chew my food while reading.

Year-end exams brought decent grades, but not stellar--surprising to everyone who knew of my library obsession, but not to me. I could have spent more time studying the material on the test, but I wanted to read new things instead. Summer break found me once again reading the season away, but at least now I would read outside my room, to Mum's immense and obvious relief. As long as I was reading at the dinner table, or in the garden, or in the family room, we were together and all was well. She took an interest in my eclectic tastes and it seemed we were bonding: two Gryffindors with an all-consuming love of learning. Dad just shook his head and laughed his best laugh and ruffled my hair a lot.

For a while, this was the closest I came to being happy. For once, I was everything I was supposed to be. Scarlet and gold colors around my neck. My nose buried in the books my mother used to love. Average grades and a decent flyer, following the footsteps of my father. I still wasn't healthy--I didn't sleep as much as I should and my dreams were wild, feverish recaps of my reading--but as long as I was allowed to read during dinner I ate until I was full and my body continued to grow. If I had any complaints, it was that I wasn't reading fast enough. There was a whole world of adventure, knowledge, power, beauty, and even sweet sorrow in my books, but I didn't have enough time in each day to read it all.

I read a book on the train back. I climbed the stairs to the chair with a book in my hand and a dozen more in a bag on my back. I shouldn't have been--and yet somehow was--surprised when the crabby wrinkled old hat bellowed "Ravenclaw!" at me, loud enough to rattle my ears.


Blue and bronze. I stared at the ceiling above my new bed with dry eyes. I had no one to blame for this turn of events but myself, yet I wasn't pleased. Whatever talisman had gotten me into Gryffindor had run out and now I was here in Raven House. Nerd house. Bookworm house.

Why did it feel as wrong as the others?

My nest in the library had been cleaned away over summer. I dragged down bronze pillows and blue blankets and took my dinner baskets with me every evening to read. But there was a sourness to the act now, a rot in my heart which I didn't understand. A tear fell on parchment paper, and I had to hastily blot it away before the page could stain. Why wasn't I happy? Nothing had changed except my house. Was it really so important for me to be a Gryffindor? If it were, then why didn't the hat place me there for good? Hadn't it listened to my father when he asked not to be placed in Slytherin? So why wouldn't it listen to me?

Yet I hadn't asked to be placed in Gryffindor. I hadn't really thought about it at all. I'd been thinking about my book, about getting back to it, about the pages my fingers were sandwiched between in order to keep my place. I'd assumed that after settling into the house I was supposed to join, I would stay there. That the scarlet and gold essence would stick to me. For all that I stressed over being unhappy in Gryffindor, it was still my family's house. I'd met that goal, checked it off the list, and was set for life. I wasn't supposed to have to keep trying to earn my place every year, over and over until I graduated! Was I?

I wasn't happy. But my sleep didn't suffer and I kept eating. Somehow that added to my depression, the feeling that my unhappiness wasn't genuine if it didn't harm me as much as past slumps had. The hat must have placed me correctly if I wasn't miserable enough to fall behind in my studies or to get myself kicked off the team. I still wasn't a starter position and I still read in the dugout, but when I was called on to switch I played well. My coping skills hadn't been keenly honed over the last three years for nothing.

Despite my inner turmoil, on the outside I finally seemed normal for once. I wasn't pitied as a Slytherin, whispers dogging my steps in the halls as people wondered what my parents must think. Nor was I lionized as a Gryffindor, being clapped on the shoulder and congratulated at every turn. Wearing blue let me fade into the background. When I was quiet or retreated to the library, people assumed I was thinking smart Ravenclaw thoughts rather than sulking. No longer was I the child of war heroes, destined for great good or terrible evil; now I was a bookworm, silent and easily overlooked. When people spoke to me, it was to ask help writing their term papers. No one regaled me with stories or cornered me to tell me which parent my nose took after.


I settled into the school year. Blue complimented my hair. Bronze brought out the light in my eyes. I slept as many hours as I needed and ate until I was full and outgrew another pair of shoes. If I wasn't happy, who was? I eyed the other students and for the first time wondered. I noticed little problems of their own, things they didn't share over our dinners. Eyes that averted when certain topics came up; mouths that closed abruptly. I wasn't the only child of war heroes, after all. Almost all of us were descended from heroes, cowards, or traitors. Those were the options: the fighters on each side, and those who had fled.

The library was still my retreat, but my reading became restless. I loved learning and I was learning a lot, but what was I doing with all this knowledge? I couldn't study myself back into Gryffindor house, but maybe I could find ways to help others. One by one, histories and bestiaries made their way back onto the shelves to be replaced in my stack with new tomes: magical cures, protective counterspells, and one-hundred-and-one spells for mundane daily chores. I learned to dislodge foreign objects from a choking throat and how to remove water from lungs after drowning. Smaller things, too, became a source of study: mending clothes and darning socks and re-lacing shoes.

When I wrote home, I asked for things I couldn't get in the school library. Packages came by owl, bearing books on self-help and first aid and fabric crafts. My tastes were as eclectic as ever, bouncing from knitting guides to introductions in mundane psychology. Reading the latter, my eyes widened with shock as tangible words capturing feelings I'd always had marched across the pages. Depression. Anxiety. Anhedonia. I was learning so much about myself even as I looked for ways to help others. For the first time in my life I had a guiding purpose beyond my own immediate curiosity: I was going to be useful.

There was an odd sort of peace in embracing mediocrity. I would never be the hero my parents were, but I could help people in small ways. I began coming back to the common rooms earlier in the evenings. I still wasn't comfortable in crowds but Ravenclaw was quieter than Gryffindor, which helped my nerves. I forced myself to strike up at least one conversation a night and kept my ears open for problems I could solve. Everyone needed something: help on an assignment, broken team equipment that needed mending, torn robes that could use a stitch. I helped wherever I could and then, social reserves depleted, retreated to bed.

Over the holidays, I started a journal listing who I helped and how. I made a point of doing one favor a day. The tasks were always small, but seeing the list grow gave me pleasure. Here was proof that I wasn't wasting my parents' money or failing in my education. However much my grades might fluctuate, here was evidence that I was learning useful skills. My abilities were modest and unflashy, but they represented hard work, real work. They were a product of patience and dedication. I wouldn't save the world, but I could help my peers be less miserable. In the process of helping them, I often forgot about my own problems for those short stretches of time. When they thanked me, they saw me rather than my parents.

Mum and Dad threw a party for me when I came home over summer. Nothing big, just the three of us, but I could see they were genuinely proud. For all my highs and lows, I'd survived four years of school and was now on the downhill slope; just three more to go. I made a point of playing games with Dad and helping Mum with her projects. I still hoarded my reading time--detective paperbacks from the local shop had become my guilty pleasure over the school break--but giving a little of myself to them each day counted in the list. They were happier, I could tell, and that made me happy to. I still wasn't doing the great things everyone else expected of me, but with family and friends I could be a hero in little, manageable ways.

The ride back on the train was more calming than I'd expected. I watched out the window and held my journal in my hands, a talisman against the churning anxiety I was slowly learning to manage. Would I ask the hat to put me in Gryffindor again? If I asked, would he oblige? As the beautiful scenery flew past my window, I realized I didn't want to wear the scarlet and gold again. Or, no, that wasn't quite true. I still wanted those things, but not if I had to ask for them. If I was a Gryffindor at heart, I would wear their colors with pride. But if I was something else--and it seemed likely that I was--I'd rather accept that now.

I expected to be sorted into Ravenclaw again. After all, I still spent half my time in the library with my nose in a book. But if the hat put me back in Slytherin, I'd accept its decision. I still didn't feel the silver and green fit me and I didn't relish moving back to the dungeons, but I could handle it this time. Four years were behind me with only three more to go. It was just a matter of work and patience and the right attitude. Not that any of that was easy--it was the hardest thing I'd ever known, grappling with my depression--but I'd hit a stride. I could stick with it now, no matter how hard it got. I believed in myself.

The hat was placed on my head. I waited for it to shout an immediate answer the way it always had with me before, but now it took its time hemming and hawing. I tilted my head backwards to look up, but of course you could never see it yourself when it was on your head; it just tipped back with me and continued mumbling to itself. Then, with the air of a very satisfied sigh, it named me.


I felt the headmistress lift the hat from my head. I stood and climbed down the steps, my legs jerky and mechanical in motion. The custodian handed me a yellow and black scarf; at the foot of my assigned bed, I would find a chest filled with matching shirts and slacks to wear under my standard robes, as well as socks and basic pajamas. All mine, paid for out of our tuition fees. I nodded to him and turned back to watch the rest of the sorting, my mind still spinning.

Hufflepuff. The 'all the rest' house. I should be upset. I ought to be crying. But what did they value? Hard work. Patience. Fair play and kindness. Maybe even being gentle with yourself, with finding the pace you needed to set, with finishing a race without worrying who is in the lead? My fingers brushed the yellow and black stripes under my fingers, so much like the bees that flitted around Dad's lilies in our garden.

I had three more years to finish out. Two more sortings after this. Given how I'd pinged around, only the stars knew what house I'd graduate in. But I watched the faces that joined me in the Hufflepuff group as the sorting wound to an end. I saw their gentle smiles, the way their eyes accepted me. My fingers brushed soft yellow and warm black again. I raised my hands to wrap the scarf around my neck, grateful for protection against the autumn chill. I smiled back at the others.

I was going to like it here, I decided. Whatever the rest of my career held for me, and the future beyond, I would remember the warm acceptance I felt when I wore Badger House colors for the first time. I would work hard to to survive--I might perhaps even thrive--and I would help the others do the same. That was how I'd be a hero like my parents, how I'd be loyal to their legacy: through hard work and kindness.


Post a Comment