The story may have a familiar ring. A boy is told by someone he has never met before that he has special abilities, that he is different from the other children, remarkably different, and that all the abuse he has suffered is not in fact because he is inferior but because he is something special and others have tried to keep that from him. He is told he must go to a special school, one that is a long trip away. It has a select student body, he is told, and they all wear special uniforms and life is very different there. And yet when he gets there he finds that in many ways children are the same everywhere, and that even among these select children he is uncommon.
The school’s name? Strathcona-Tweedsmuir.
Oh, were you expecting Hogwarts? Well, I have to tell you, the IQ test I got in grade 4 was my Harry Potter moment. But the news-bearer wasn’t Hagrid, it was a psychologist. And I only stayed one year at the school, because it was expensive and didn’t altogether seem worth the money. Also, my brother went too. And instead of a train trip at the beginning of the school year, I got a long bus trip from northwest Calgary down to south of the city every morning, and back every afternoon. And my offer of admission was not delivered by owl.
Owls are a big thing in Harry Potter. They deliver messages; they are friends and companions. Harry has a snowy owl called Hedwig. Why owls? I think it is that they are associated with wisdom. The owl was the symbol of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, the patroness of Athens; the standard coin of the region in classical times, the drachma, had an owl stamped on it and so was sometimes called an ‘owl’ (στρίγξ, strinx). An owl seems always to be watching, aware, circumspect. The Dutch renaissance painter Jan den Uyl, whose last name means ‘the owl’, always worked an image or two of an owl into his still-life paintings, often quite subtly. If you look and look, you will finally see one looking back at you, and once you have seen it, you can always see it. You have become wise to the owl.
So an owl would seem to be a good thing to associate with gifted children, too, no? Not just children gifted with the ability to perform magic, but children gifted with intellectual ability. Wise beyond their years…
…they are not. Intelligence and wisdom are not exactly the same thing. Intelligence involves knowing facts and being able to figure things out, but wisdom involves knowing how to use that intelligence and generally how the world actually behaves, and how you really tick as a person. You gain wisdom by having had many occasions in your life to say “Ow!” So the ow! converts to owl.
Harry had great adventures, became an ace quidditch player and a leader and a symbol for all the wizards. With help from his friends, he passed his Ordinary Wizarding Level exams – that’s OWL. I, on the other hand, left STS after one year because it wasn’t worth it (too many owls to pay, not enough wisdom), and ended up going to high school in Banff, where I got six scholarships when I graduated – but one of my classmates went on to win two bronze medals at the 1988 Winter Olympics, and another was already touring as a concert cellist in high school. So whoop-de-doo for me; I might be owled over, but no one was bowled over by me. Somehow discovering I was a boy genius with the highest IQ the psychologist had ever tested didn’t end up making me a hero. Or wise. Any owl I had was in my head. I was an intellectually smart, socially dumb, generally lazy kid. That was owl. I mean all. I had pulled the owl over my own eyes. I was a bit mixed up; I thought owl but felt low.
And the owl isn’t the symbol of wisdom everywhere. Among the Stoney Indians, on whose reserve I spent much of my growing years and for whom my parents worked, the owl is a symbol of fear. Its call (which the word owl may ultimately be descended from an imitation of) can be haunting, lonely: not quite a howl, but still a sound more from frozen hell than from warm heaven. One time when I was young I had a dream in which an owl ate one of my cats. I loved my cats more than Harry loved his owl.
Harry had a magic wand. I do not, although I still have my school tie. Harry was a natural leader and made great friends. I was a lonely dweeb, although I made great friends once I’d grown up. Harry had an owl named Hedwig. I just had an owl in my head. And it wasn’t the owl of wisdom.