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.

9 responses to “owl

  1. ashtarbalynestry

    How do you even pronounce Strathcona-Tweedsmuir? My first impression was [stɹæθˈkʰoʊnə ˈtʰwiːdzmʊəɹ]; that -uir ending trips me up.

  2. The Tweedsmuir is /twi:dzmir/.

  3. David Milne-Ives

    I’ve been receiving your posts by email for quite a while now, and enjoying them greatly. I frequently forward them to one or another collection of my colleagues, here at STS, and use them in my Theory of Knowledge classes on a regular basis. I forwarded this blog entry to all of the teachers in the three STS school divisions, thinking it a topic that all would be interested in. Notoriety has intrinsic appeal, at a safe distance. If you’re ever back in the area, it would be great to have you swing by and see how things have changed, and how they haven’t changed. Maybe talk to some of the current STS community, who also have changed and haven’t, both.

    • The truth is that I remember STS quite fondly, although the students, it turned out, weren’t all as gifted and intelligence-focused as I had hoped. But they were on average better than elsewhere, and I did enjoy the milieu (and have still an appreciation for school uniforms). It was just too hard for my parents to sustain the cost. Imagine Harry Potter leaving Hogwarts after one year because there was no money. 😛

      Amusingly, I was not too far away over Christmas – my niece’s wedding reception was in the De Winton community hall. But I was at STS in 1976-77 (grade 5), so I’m sure much has changed since then. The headmaster at the time was a Mr. Heard, I remember. I can’t recall the teachers, for the most part – there was a Mr. Coyne, and a Mrs. Paul. Actually, I have a student newsletter from then… I could look and see who-all is mentioned in it…

      Anyway, I’m thrilled that you’re putting my blog to that kind of use! Theory of Knowledge must be a higher grade level than 5.

      • David Milne-Ives

        I believe there might be one or two teachers still here from that era, although one who certainly was, Ms Francis Maclean, retired last June after well over 30 years at STS. She was a long-time Grade 5 teacher who implemented what has become a cherished tradition of decades’ standing with her classes – Mini-Mall. Just to close that circle, my wife is one of the current Grade 5 teachers. I can appreciate your comment about the cost of attending: our daughter attended for six years in the elementary school, left to do late-French immersion in the public system during Junior High and, bright cookie that she is, won a scholarship to return to STS for Senior High. She’s off to university this year, and finding herself very well-prepared for the academic challenges there. TOK is a Grade 11 and 12 level course, although I pitch it more like an upper-year undergrad seminar. I amuse and confuse the students in roughly equal measure, on a good day… and most days are good.

  4. We all have owls in our head. Its nice to know we relate to HP in a non magical way.

  5. Brian Hitchcock

    Your story very much echoes mine. My “genius” was discovered early on as well, but it has yet to lead to fame or fortune, and I had to acquire what wisdom I have the same as anyone else, through “ow!”s. I was sent for special psychological tests, declared to have a super-high IQ, skipped ahead a grade, and put in “advanced” reading group. Later, in high school (though I was, at best, a desultory student) I would be placed in “honors” math, win the Mu Alpha Theta contest, and score highest-in-school on my SATs and other aptitude tests; but I never developed social skills until (honestly) after I married. (It remains to be puzzled how I managed to woo a wife; actually I think she wooed me — God bless her departed soul.)

    But there is hope for us late-bloomers. You have carved out a comfortable niche among the literati; and I, too, shall soon become a published author, and no longer cringe at public speaking. So owl is not lost.

    P.S. It seems odd to enshrine, as a paragon of wisdom, a creature who preys on rats.

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