The Appeal of Magical Boarding Schools

Even though my student life has more or less come to an end, September has always reminded me of how much I miss and enjoy magical boarding school stories. One of the main reasons I am drawn to these kinds of back-to-school novels is, obviously, the fact that I don’t have to be reminded of how bad I am at math. But if magic were the only hook, I could have settled for any old fantasy novel. No, I believe that something about the boarding school setting appeals to me. For one thing, unlike fantasies that cause protagonists to miss school and/or run away from home, adventures at boarding schools often happen in between classes or during spring holidays. For another, the parents (mostly) get to stay alive but also not interfere with all the curfew breaking. (I don’t know if these things have always bothered me, but these days it seems like I care more about the non-adventure parts of adventures. Is this adulting? Am I doing it right?) But mainly, I think it is the fact that looking back at my younger years involves a liberal amount of cringing and the rebirth of old insecurities. Magical boarding school stories allow enough of a distance from reality, while allowing me to relive the best and the worst parts of school.

Studies, for example, are never quite as life and death in books as they seemed in real life. Not knowing a formula may not get you killed, but not remembering how to do a shield spell might. And no matter how stressful hiding the wrong grade from your parents was, it is never going to be quite as maddening as Call from The Copper Gauntlet having to hide that he is destined to be an Evil Overlord. Typically, your failures are your own. Which is pretty bad, since your adult future hinges on the hard work of your youth; it’s just not the same as bringing about an apocalypse. As a child, reading about Chosen Ones took the edge off of being a Super Not Chosen One. As an adult, reading about the Chosen One makes me appreciate being the Addicted To Netflix One. All that said, in the subjects I liked, I channeled Hermione Granger in all her swot-y glory. I did it with great purpose and exaggeration, too. I was not (am not) particularly competitive, but I know now that Hermione was the only main female character in a world I wanted to be a part of and this act of being an unrepentant nerd brought me closer to her and to Hogwarts.

Speaking of Hogwarts, the one thing that always seemed alien to me was the large role that sorting played in the building of friendships. This is where reading something like A Great and Terrible Beauty would have been perfect in high school. The way that Gemma and Ann are thrown together, the way they clash when Felicity and Pippa come into the picture, and the way their friendship is cemented; it mirrored my own complicated relationships with peers, even if my own experiences didn’t involve secret magical orders.

As I grow older though, it is the portrayal of adults in boarding schools that most interests me. Yes, books like Harry Potter lets me look back with nostalgia, but they also force me to look forward. It’s easy to recognize which of the adults were most beloved, most respected by students and your own past self. But reading these books now, I am also better at questioning why these adults were revered. I think these books raise the question of what kind of adult I would like to be because every Harry, Gemma, Callum, and Past Me deserved better. Ultimately, it seems that the reason magical boarding school stories appeal to me now is that, somewhere along the line, I have started relishing coming back home to reality as much I enjoy leaving it behind.

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