The Valkyries, the elite soccer team I played on in high school, were good. Not sort of good or kind of good but competing-for-state-championships and winning-tournaments-around-the-country good. We might have been high school girls, but we were serious business.
Despite this—or perhaps because of it—I never truly felt as if I fit in with the Valkyries. I knew I was talented enough to belong, even if I wasn’t often a starter, but when I looked around at my teammates, I couldn’t help feeling that they all had something I didn’t. While I spent my non-soccer evenings at band rehearsals or youth group, they spent their time doing…well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what they did, since I never asked, but I was sure that whatever it was, it was infinitely more exciting than what I did. None of my teammates ever said as much, but I knew from experience that my hobbies were uncool.
So I kept to myself. Before practice, I sat quiet at the edge of the group when we all pulled on our cleats, and I stayed near the back of the pack when we ran laps, and I never rushed to catch up to a teammate so that we could walk to our parents’ waiting cars in the parking lot together. Except for when we were on the field, I mostly only talked when I had to, and then it was usually just to agree with whatever the other girls said, and I made sure to smile broadly whenever anyone else laughed, even—especially—when I didn’t get the joke. Sometimes I tried to do more, to say more, even to disagree, but I would get so nervous and tongue tied that more often than not I’d forget what I was trying to say.
I understand now that I brought most of my discomfort on myself, that the girls on my team were not trying to push me aside, but I was convinced they didn’t like me, that they wished me gone. I couldn’t understand how they were so at ease, how they laughed and joked and talked, often one on top of the other, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Not only were they naturals with group conversations, they were equally comfortable voicing dissenting opinions.
* * *
Around the same time I joined the Valkyries, the Harry Potter books began to grow in popularity. They were still firmly viewed as books for children then, but I had a younger sister, and one night when I couldn’t sleep, I snuck downstairs and borrowed her copy of the first book, figuring that reading something mundane and mediocre would put me to sleep in no time.
Instead of sending me to sleep, the story hooked me. Only the first two books were out at that point, but I read them both in a week, sneaking them up to my room in between soccer practices and band rehearsals and youth group events, too embarrassed to tell my sister that I was in love with books that were so clearly, to my eyes, written for kids. When I got the third book the day it came out, my secret was finally out, and I stayed up all night to finish it in one sitting. By the time the fourth book hit the shelves, my whole family was gripped by Pottermania. We ordered multiple copies of the book so that no one had to share, but when they arrived, we first gathered in the living room and read the beginning pages aloud together.
I was fascinated by Harry’s story. I started frequenting Potter message boards—though I was never brave enough to post anything—and discussed theories for the new books with my family and a few friends from school who’d read the books—friends who invariably also had younger siblings. We debated whether Snape was really one of the good guys, and whether Harry had any chance of surviving his quest. (For the record, I never wavered in my views: Snape was good, and Harry was going to live.) I loved how the books matured and grew darker. But more than anything, I adored Hermione Granger. Here was a girl who wasn’t the prettiest, who wasn’t the best at sports (okay, she was abysmal), yet who still believed in herself. Who never lost her voice, who never apologized for who she was, no matter what it cost her. But most important, she did all of this and still mattered to the people around her. Sure, sometimes she had to work for that respect, and sometimes she ended up crying in the bathroom when others forgot (or hadn’t yet seen) how important she was to them, but she always knew she mattered. My best self, I hoped, was a lot like Hermione.
* * *
My last year on the Valkyries, we went to a tournament in northern Michigan, and my entire team, all eighteen of us, stayed together in a cabin. It was night, and we’d loaded on carbs, watched a few movies, and now sat on our sleeping bags on the lower level of the house, knowing we should be heading to sleep but still not quite ready to commit to it. Despite my four years on the team, I was still quiet, though by then I had come to a sort of acceptance. Everyone else would talk and laugh while I’d think of all the things I might say if I were brave enough, and for the most part we were all comfortable with this arrangement. I was just considering pulling a pillow over my head and trying to sleep despite the conversation still in full swing around me when the talk turned to Harry Potter.
Here, I thought, here is something I can finally talk about.
Despite the fact my whole family had come to love Harry Potter, they were still children’s books, and so as a rule, I didn’t talk about them at soccer. My teammates were all intelligent and did well in school (as far as I knew or suspected) and I knew many of them liked to read, but trying to discuss the book series I’d gotten into at the same time and with the same level of enthusiasm as elementary and middle school students was too big a risk for me. But here were my teammates, my cool, confident, and unafraid teammates, bringing it up for me.
I was considering saying something. I really was. But our goalie, Colleen, beat me to it: “I’ll never read them,” she said. “Too many people like those books, and if that many people like them, they can’t be any good.”
Hermione would have said something—not something mean or cruel, but something all the same.
Me, I just sat there and laughed.
* * *
I’ve heard that logic used many times over the years, not just in relation to Harry Potter, or even to books, but that was the first time I’d ever heard someone make that argument. People are generally stupid, the argument goes, and therefore anything that people in general like must be stupid as well. Take it a step further, and those who like something popular must be lacking as well. Similar things are said whenever a popular indie artist goes mainstream, or when a cult classic gets remade for a wider audience. I see this type of attitude in literary circles, where my love of high fantasy is often seen as a sin, as a copout to reading “real” books. I feel it when people ask me what songs I’m learning on my guitar and then recommend “good” music to me after I say I’m working on something by Mumford and Sons. It’s why, when I asked my students to share their favorite TV shows the other day, one girl said she liked Scandal but then later admitted to me that she just hadn’t wanted to tell the class her true favorite was Once Upon a Time.
* * *
I didn’t stand up for my beloved books that night, but whenever I think of the things people call guilty pleasures, I think of that moment, of my silence, of the guilt I felt at finding pleasure in the places I did, the places I still do. But more than that, I think of the guilt I feel at not standing up for myself, for something I loved. I can see the flaws in the Potter books, the same way I can see flaws in all the books I read. Not everyone accepts those flaws, but I do, and that’s all that matters to me. There are still nights sometimes when I can’t sleep, and on those nights, the story I reach for to comfort me, to calm me down, is still the story found in Harry Potter. Now I’m just no longer afraid to admit it.