The wand chooses the Witch. BUT. First, the Witch must be chosen by the Wand Keeper.
What brought me here? A grown ass woman in a wand shop in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in Orlando Florida silently pleading that a theme park actor will choose me over the excited 10-year-olds around me as the “witch” for the 3-minute wand choosing ceremony. A ceremony that ends with me buying a $50 plastic replica of a 10-inch long twig.
The type of item that since we travel full-time with carry on luggage is actually completely ridiculous.
How did we even end up here, having flown across the country to the middle of Florida to immerse ourselves fully in a theme park for two days?
The short answer is that back in February when we were staying in Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan Coast of Mexico I stumbled across another traveler’s blog post about her visit to The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. I had never heard of such a place! I truly had no idea that a Harry potter theme park existed. I was as flabbergasted as Hagrid on the first day of Care of Magical Creatures when he discovered that NOT A SINGLE student had been able to open their biting, snapping, fur and fang covered textbook.
I knew immediately that we had to go! And even though we definitely had real work (like for our real business that funds our lifestyle) to do that day, I immediately abandoned it to start studying Universal Studios crowd calendars and other online posts to help me choose when would be the best time for us to go.
But how did I even get there? In the middle of Mexico, feverishly researching the park with a thoroughness that would make Hermione revising for her NEWT’s look like a cauldron cake walk.
How I ended up there is a longer story, that explains both my love for Harry Potter and what Tom and I have been doing for a living while traveling full time for just a month or two shy of five years.
When I was 18 I took my first real job, as a special education instructional aide with San Diego Unified School District. I had just graduated high school myself a couple of months before and then on September 5th found myself entering the very place that I had so happily left “forever” in July.
I had decided to not go straight into college from High School, but that was basically all I had decided. I knew I would end up in a university eventually, I just wasn’t in a huge rush to get there. I didn’t have any grand plans for my year (or more) off, I just wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to study and felt like I needed a little time to chill. A decision that had horrified my teachers and guidance counselors. I remember one guidance counselor in particular practically wailing at me that with my “4.0 GPA there was no reason to not go directly to college!” I explained to her patiently that I was (probably) going to college one day. Just not yet. Apparently I was skewing her percentage of students that get accepted into college numbers and she was going to have to do some more math to get the new one. I could empathize, math is the worst, right? It’s right under divination, or Defense Against the Dark Arts when taught by Professor Lockhart, as my least favorite subject.
I went to a performing arts school that I loved not only because I got the opportunity to act in plays several times a year, but because it had a very open and artistic environment. A school that worked really well for my rainbow-haired, vegan, punk, self. I don’t remember how or why I decided to take “peer education” my first year there as a 7th grader. It’s almost as though I was sorted into the class. Peer education is a class where you go into the Special Education classroom for a period and help where you are needed. Either by tutoring someone with a worksheet, by helping to make supplies for the classroom, or helping a student who had a job on campus with their task.
I discovered quickly that I had a lot of empathy for any kid “on the outside.” Though my eccentricity was embraced in this Arts school, elementary school had been very rough for me. Kids are often unkind to those who are different, and I had it bad. It’s hard enough when you literally stand out from the crowd, and I was about 2 feet taller than all my peers, but when you compound that with being one of the only white girls in the school, being in a “special” gifted class, bringing packed tofu sandwiches for lunch instead of Lunchables or cool store bought cookies, but then I made it even worse by dying my hair rainbow colors and spending recess with a book. Now that I was in a school that loved everything that had made me an outsider before, I discovered that I preferred spending time with the kids who also felt a little on the outside in the Special Education room.
School has always come easily to me and I zoomed through lessons and courses so fast you’d have thought I had a time turner. So it came to pass that when I entered eleventh grade I had taken all of the math and science classes on offer and had some extra “free periods” to fill. So for the last two years of high school, I spent 3 periods a day as a peer educator in the Special Education classroom; I had obviously found something I enjoyed.
At my graduation from this fine establishment, the teacher of the special education class asked me what my plans were. What were my plans? What I really wanted to do was go and travel everywhere I could in the world, explore and see all there was to see, but I didn’t see a way of making that happen.
I told her that I was plan-less and she asked if she could call me in a few weeks when things had calmed down. I shrugged, gave her my number and didn’t think too much about it. By the time she called me at the end of August I had truthfully forgotten all about it. What with my busy schedule of working at a flower shop, smoking cigarettes and drinking at punk shows with my friends, it’s amazing I had time to remember anything!
When she did call she cut straight to the point.
“Would you like a job?”
“I’m sorry? A job?”
One of the staff in her classroom was leaving before school started and she had been spending the summer frantically working with the school to make sure she got to choose her replacement. She hoped that would be me. She helped and hustled me through the process of getting hired by the School District, I was definitely one of the youngest there, and then worked everything out in her bustling, cheerful way so that on the first day of school I found myself back.
Trust me, I knew it was lame that I was back there. NO ONE wants to be the kid that ends up working at the school they went to. NO ONE wants to have to all of a sudden fight to be recognized as an adult and fellow staff member by people who had been their teachers just two months before. But I did know that I loved being in that classroom and that the teacher was someone special who I could learn a lot from. I kept my head down, avoided the staff room like it was full of flobber-worms, and tried my hardest to never leave the classroom while I was at work. I was daily asked if I was a student, and got so many quizzical looks you’d think I was wearing orange radish earrings and talking about the crumple horned snorkack!
But all of the awkwardness was forgotten on the very first day of school when one of the new students, who for privacy reasons I will call Victoria, bounded enthusiastically off her bus and straight into my heart. This girl had a tough row to hoe if there ever was one! Her birth mother lived in a group home and also was also diagnosed with mental retardation. An awful group home where she was apparently attacked by someone (no one knows who) and then gave birth to Victoria in the toilet, because no one had realized that she was pregnant. It’s awful. I know. And the circumstances of her birth, unfortunately, shaped the rest of Victoria’s life. Since her mother was so low-functioning it was assumed that Victoria would be too, and so she was labeled the very first day of her life. She was bounced around from foster home to foster home with little thought to her care or education before she finally ended up with a lady she called “Grammy.” A kind woman, though she had over 10 foster kids and very limited resources. And yet Victoria joyfully attacked everything in her life with a huge grin and limitless enthusiasm.
One of her greatest pleasures was to listen to books on tape. The book she really wanted to listen to was the first Harry Potter book since it was 2001 and all the rage those days. The school library did not have a copy of the audiobook on cassette, and though I contacted all of the public libraries in San Diego there was a waiting list as long as Dumbledore’s beard.
Special education in the 1990’s was not what it is today, and since everyone assumed she wouldn’t ever be able to do much, no one ever tried to teach her very much. A bad teaching system compounded with her tragic birth story and the lack of a strong advocate on her side, meant that though she actually was extremely “able” and TOTALLY could have been taught to read like any other 6-year-old, no one ever even considered trying until she came to us at the beginning of high school. As any educator knows, it is a much more difficult thing to be taught to read at the age of 15 than at 5, and when you throw in a disability…. we tried, but progress was painfully slow. And so this lovely girl couldn’t even read the book she wanted to on her own during her lunch break. Really, it killed me more than I can say.
I assumed the books were silly since they were all the rage and anything that everybody liked, I (obviously) wouldn’t like. But I checked “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” out of the library and told her that I would take my lunch break during her lunch break to read to her under a tree if she wanted.
From the first day we met Harry; another misfit with few prospects, who extraordinarily finds a world where not only does he fit in but, thrives, we were both hooked! That first day I took the book home with me and read it all in one night. I continued reading with Victoria every day at lunch, and eventually after school as well, offering to drive her home to Grammy’s after an hour or two spent reading together. After the first book we dove right into the second and I began picking her up on some weekends as well, to take her to the movies or out for another special treat since there weren’t very many at home.
I also joyfully watched Victoria thrive in the open environment of that school just as I had. Making friends both in her class and with the typically developing kids, art school students are kinder than most high schoolers. When she leaped off the bus one morning, running to me to show me the picture she had worked on all weekend of a racing broom to proudly show me how well she had lettered “Nimbus 2000” on it’s handle in tiny letters I loved her and those books more than just about anything.
After the school year was over I left. I was very grateful to the teacher for setting me on the path but knew that I could not continue to work at my old high school. I transferred to an elementary school, a place where no one would think I was a student and began my college career with night classes at SDSU. But I left knowing what field I would always work in, and now, 15 years later, Tom and I make our living creating apps for kids with Special Needs through our company Touch Autism.
Although we lost touch, I know Victoria ended up doing pretty well too. When she was a senior in high school she decided that what she wanted more than anything in the world was to be prom queen. The teachers of the classroom tried to scale back her hopes, warning her that “a lot of girls run for prom queen. Lots of them are very, very popular.” She refused to be dissuaded and carefully wrote out all of the campaign posters herself with slogans like “Vote for Victoria because she likes daisies” (true, they were her favorite flower) and “Vote for Victoria because she is nice and a good friend” (also very true).
It seems as though everyone else in the school was swayed by her logical arguments as she was voted prom queen by an overwhelming majority and got to spend one shining night with a tiara on, dancing and being congratulated by everyone in the school.
So fast forward a decade and a half and find me, a serious Harry Potter fan discovering for the first time that there is a whole world devoted to nerds just like me, and I knew I HAD to go, Even if it was in Orlando. And I knew I really, really, really, wanted to be chosen as the Witch for the wand choosing ceremony in Ollivanders. Because not only did I want an interactive wand that I could use during my visit, but I wanted to take part in the magic of the ceremony.
And then standing in the room, the wizard in the wand shop didn’t skip a beat and pointed to… A super awkward 11-year old who’s cheeks burned with happy anticipation when he chose her. And really, that was as it should have been. That adorably awkward girl with a pink face and ill-fitting pants definitely needed it more than I did. Maybe I needed it twenty-five years ago, but I am doing pretty well now.
Though I wasn’t chosen by the wand keeper, I did figure out the advice I wish I could have told my 10-year-old self and all other misfits out there: You will get chosen, you will get your letter. It may not be from Hogwarts. It may be an artsy high school that finds your differences fascinating. It may be a group of friends as interested in discussing the intricacies of a video game as you are, or it may just be a gobstones club. But it will come. You will find your people and they will welcome you with open arms.