Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School

When will my letter come?

It’s something so many of us think in one form or another. We stare out the window and we look for an owl. We look into the ocean, hoping a bottle will bob to the surface. We scan a fistful of envelopes fresh from the mailbox, and even though we already know they’re all going to be extortionist credit card offers and mortgage scams and pink-fronted bills that we could have sworn we already paid… we feel a raw-edged note of disappointment.

The letter is never there.

That disappointment has a familiar flavor. It feels like the last day of high school. It feels like that first college class where the whiteboard is dirty and the professor doesn’t make any cool dramatic speeches about how some of his sweaty, over-groomed undergrads will rise (and some… will fall). It whispers into our ears: Is that all there is?

And we know that the answer is yes. That’s all there is. But still, we watch the water and we watch the skies and we search and we hope because we want something more.

We want to be something more.

The condition of man’s existence is one of yearning. In one direction, we wish and we hope and we dream. In the other, we are dogged by the lingering disappointment of dreams that did not come true and never will. We look back at what we had once thought possible and our hearts strain because we still think maybe… but then we remember: no.

But what if the answer wasn’t no?

This is the ever-living heart of our obsession with magical schools. Hogwarts, Brakebills, Winterhold, Greenlaw, Veritas, Wizard’s Hall, and so many more—we look to them with that sense of yearning that colors so much of our lives. We think back to a time when we thought everything was going to change forever, and we recognize that all the things we thought would change… didn’t. They were the same because we were, in those failed moments of transformation, still ultimately ourselves. They were the same, and they keep being the same, and we wonder why they aren’t different.

And we want answers.

Do you remember turning thirteen? I do. Lord, but I was excited. I ran at thirteen clenching the same enthusiasm I’d brought to bras and braces and menses. I was about to be a real teenager. I was about to be a young adult. I’d be able to waltz into movies with boobs in them with one sauntering flash of my school ID. I would say cool stuff like “shit” and “douche” and “pussy.” I wouldn’t ever feel small or scared again. I wouldn’t ever feel alone again.

I was turning thirteen, and everything was about to change.

But then, of course, nothing changed. I felt exactly as small and scared as I always had. I still didn’t really go to movies. I said “shit” and “douche” and “pussy,” but it always felt like the posturing that it was and I could tell that my friends were only high-fiving me because they wanted to feel like our swearing meant something. I still felt alone all the time.

But there were books, at least. I had always read all of the books I could get my hands on, but when I was thirteen I started actually paying attention to the ones that were geared toward people my age, instead of perusing my college-age sister’s shelves for books that might have sex in them. I started attending to the Young Adult section, and when I discovered those books, I burned through them with my usual ravenous speed. As I read them, something new opened in my heart.

Longing.

The boys in these books—it was almost always boys, or an occasional Girl Who Wasn’t Like the Other Girls—had access to the overwhelming, all-encompassing change I’d hoped for. The night they turned thirteen, magical things happened to them. Terrible things, and wonderful things. They blew out their candles and suddenly everything was different, and they were different, and the bad things in their lives were much worse but somehow, mysteriously, there were good things too.

For the first real time in all my thirteen years, I discovered real yearning.

Do you remember your first day of middle school? I do. Lord, but I was excited. I put together an outfit, a real outfit, one that said “I’m not in elementary school anymore, pops.” The shirt had a lace-up part at the top and the jeans had an applique of a rose on the leg, but it wasn’t a nice rose, it was a thorny rose and it was cool as fuck, a word I said loudly in the presence of my peers to make sure they knew how cool and tough I was. I had new glasses and I had new bands on my braces that coordinated with my outfit, and I’d been practicing a new walk that would signify to everyone that I was very mature.

I was going into middle school, and everything was about to change.

But then, of course, nothing changed. People saw my glasses and my braces and my inhaler and they still correctly labelled me as a nerd. Someone asked me if I had a back problem after noticing my new walk, and I had to go to the school office to get a scoliosis check. Teachers were meaner in middle school, and so were my peers—one teacher grabbed a fistful of my hair in class to demonstrate why dyeing hair “ruins girls,” and my entire friend group seemed to ebb and flow on an unpredictable tide of tolerating or hating me.

The books I read kept telling me that the bullying I endured would unlock a hidden power, or an affinity for controlling one of the elements. At the very least it would summon the attention of a higher power that would show up in the night and spirit me away and teach me all there was to know.

And yet.

Do you remember your first day of high school? I do. Lord, but I was excited. I had a boyfriend named Chris, a real boyfriend who I kissed and everything (even with tongue one time). He was tall and had vaguely blonde hair that never fell into his eyes, and he played some instrument that required a spit valve. I walked into the halls of that giant school and headed for my first class, which was science—biology, which was a real science, one that you could major in. Not like the “earth science” and “life science” of middle school—no way, that was all in the past. I shrugged my backpack onto one shoulder because, as a high schooler, my single shoulder was bound to be strong in ways that middle-school Sarah’s shoulder hadn’t been—more than strong enough to carry two textbooks, two notebooks, two binders, and all the assorted debris that seasons the inside of a backpack. I would also be strong enough not to cry after the math teacher yelled at me, strong enough not to lie awake at night wondering if I was weird. All that was behind me now, I was sure of it.

I was going into high school, and everything was about to change.

But then, of course, nothing changed. I would still lay awake at night wondering what was wrong with me. My shoulder hurt all the time. Chris and I broke up. Biology was hard.

And not a single magical thing happened.

I waited. It was high school. It was my last real chance, because everyone knew that college was an endless impossible grind, the teachers were always reminding us of that—and besides, once you turned eighteen, you’d finished. You’d become who you were gonna be forever. So it had to be during high school, it just had to. It was now or never.

I waited.

Do you remember prom?

I had plans to ditch mine, because my then-boyfriend was too old to attend with me, a sure sign that I was much too mature for prom anyway. I watched with thinly-veiled scorn as all of my peers went through the rites: fraught speculation about who would ask whom, theatrical prom-posals involving songs and chalk and balloons. Dress shopping and makeup planning and diets and tanning. More fraught speculation over who would travel to prom together. Shockingly little concern for the Prom Court, which was kind of a done deal anyway and everyone knew it. I watched it all and heckled because who cares about prom, anyway?

And then an ex-boyfriend (not Chris) broke up with his then-girlfriend and had an extra ticket, and since he and I were still friends and everyone else was already spoken for…

I told everyone I didn’t care. I wore a dress I already owned, and I did my own makeup, and I made a lot of noise about how I wouldn’t have gone, but. But when we arrived and walked in, and the music came on, a coal in my heart reddened back into an ember of hope.

I was going to prom, and even though I’d already turned eighteen and I was already the person I was going to be forever… Everything was about to change.

I won’t lie: Prom was great. Nothing changed, not a damn thing, but it was fun. It was even almost magical. But then we all showed up at school on Monday, and everyone was still themselves.

I remember everyone looking at each other, expectation in our eyes: Did it happen? Did everything change? Did your letter come?

And all that expectation was met with an inevitable faltering smile: Nope, no letter.

As adults, all of us keep coming back to magical schools. We won’t shut up about them. Our fascination, like everything else about us, infuriates the generation that came before us. “Read another book,” the common refrain goes. “These are stories for children.” Over-heated op-eds and editorials and social media pleas enter into any discussion that brings up a magical school as a reference point: Enough already. Grow up. Move on.

But it has a root. It’s like the endless dissection of a bad breakup, or continually scrutinizing the circumstances surrounding an unexpected layoff. We were all certain that something great was just around the corner—society promised it, and the books we read cemented that promise. If we stuck it out, everyone said, if we just kept our chins up and believed, if we persevered through the hard times, our letters would come.

And we keep coming back to those books. We keep coming back to magical schools of every shape and size and grit-level. We reexamine from every possible angle: What did we miss? What step, what insight, what theme? What did we do wrong? Why weren’t we swept away at eleven, thirteen, sixteen, eighteen? Why didn’t Everything Change like we were promised it would?

The real answer, of course, is because things don’t work like that. Non-traumatic change happens over months and years. Our lives are etched into new shapes like canyons being carved away by a steady flow of water, and we become the people we are without realizing it. We are rarely sorted into tidy categories of function and personality; instead, we painstakingly form communities and try with all our might to hang on to them. We don’t get to take classes that teach us how to do everything we’ll ever need to know to survive; instead, we learn in increments, by making mistakes and suffering consequences that are rarely fair or justified. There’s no One Big Moment of identification that says we are different, changed, special, ready.

We must continue trying to become who we are, by each day and breath and injury—and in the world we occupy, we must fight for everything we were raised to want. We must fight for hope, for recognition of our humanity. We must fight for the right to air and water. We must fight to claim our bodies as our own. There are no magic answers, and there is no sudden resolution. No one has appeared to tell us that there was a mistake, and we belong to a kinder world than this one. No one has appeared to tell us that there are ways to survive that we don’t know about yet—ways that we can get through all of this without suffering losses.

Because things don’t change in a heartbeat. We know that. But we yearn for a world in which things are different. We come back to magical schools over and over again, reading and writing and analyzing, certain that we’ll figure out what was supposed to happen. What we missed. We didn’t attend the magical schools, but we still learned lessons from them. We keep revisiting those lessons, because we’ve figured it out, haven’t we? We know that no letter is coming to invite us to a better world than this one.

We were told that a better world was waiting for us.

We were told that a letter was on the way.

We’ll just have to write the letter ourselves.

Sarah Gailey

Hugo and Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and The Boston Globe, and she is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent fiction credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, came out in May 2017. She has a novel forthcoming from Tor Books in Spring 2019. Gailey lives in beautiful Oakland, California, with her husband and two scrappy dogs. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com; find her on social media @gaileyfrey.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.