Confirmation at Hogwarts: Orientation and Initiation

Part 1 of a series exploring practical applications of the Harry Potter series in a Christian youth formation context. Introduction here.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter learns he is a wizard and goes to Hogwarts for the first time. With the other first years, he is sorted into his house (Gryffindor, in his case), and starts to learn the ropes of the wizarding world.

It’s worth noting that Harry’s at an incredible disadvantage. Unlike Ron, who has grown up in the wizarding world and knows a great deal about Hogwarts from his older brothers, and Hermione, who has spent the summer reading Hogwarts: A History, Harry is going into Hogwarts cold. He doesn’t know the jargon. He doesn’t know the traditions. He doesn’t know the rules. He doesn’t know the behavioral norms. He has to figure all of this out as he goes along. As do some of our youth who come to us from a less churched background, Harry needs to spend a great deal of time learning some of the things his wizard-family friends consider the basics. What can we learn from Hogwarts about helping youth get oriented?

Hogwarts has really mixed success at orientation and initiation. Oh, let me be honest: Hogwarts actually does a pretty lousy job. But there are lessons to be learned for all of us in looking at Hogwarts’ hits and misses. Here are some of the things I observed.

On the positive side:

Hogwarts went to extreme lengths to make sure Harry received information directly about his place at the school. Let’s just start with the fact that the letters from Hogwarts were addressed to Harry – not to his guardians. And that Hogwarts persisted, in the fact of all opposition, in communicating with Harry himself.

On the negative side:

The message he receives is one that would be impossible for him to answer: “We await your owl by no later than 31 July,” writes Professor McGonagall, and Harry’s answer (reasonably enough) is “What does it mean, they await my owl?”

I have to admit, I also feel some sympathy for the Dursleys, who have no idea what is going on. “Where is this school anyway?” Uncle Vernon asks at one point. Harry doesn’t know. It’s perhaps a good thing the Dursleys were so neglectful. A loving, concerned parent would rightly have issues with the lack of information.

The lessons for us: Are we communicating with youth directly? And, if we expect them to answer, do we provide them with the tools to do so? And what do parents and guardians need to know? Are we using terms everyone understands, or are we using insider jargon? How well are we keeping everyone informed of everything they need to know? 

On the positive side:

Harry is assigned an adult, Hagrid, who is knowledgeable in this new world he is about to enter, to help him out, taking him to Diagon Alley to help him get his school supplies. Hagrid clearly answers Harry’s many question about the new words he’s hearing: quidditch, Slytherin, knuts, Muggles. And he’s kind, listening to Harry’s concerns and taking them seriously.

On the negative side:

Hagrid keeps erroneously assuming Harry knows crucial information already, like the location of Platform 9 3/4, which Harry must then find on his own. And Hagrid leaves it to Harry to “send me a letter with yer owl” if there are any problems, rather than checking in to see if there are more questions or problems that need solving.

The lessons for us: We cannot assume that the youth we work with understand insider jargon – and the church is rife with insider jargon, unspoken rules, and traditions. These can be anything from theological terms to the names we give our meeting rooms and where they’re located. We may have the best lesson plans in the world, but if we ask youth to meet us in Westminster Hall or the Undercroft or the Guild Room and youth don’t know where to go, everyone is going to be frustrated.

Also, as we know, mentors are invaluable in helping people become oriented and are an excellent resource to provide the answers to many of the nitty gritty questions. But it’s a good idea to make sure mentors know they may need to take the lead in reaching out.

On the positive side:

The Sorting Hat ceremony is a wonderful rite of initiation – one in which each individual receives personalized attention, taking into account the personality, skills, and preference of each first year student, and all receive a warm welcome to their new house family. I love that the sorting for Harry is actually a conversation, where Harry has a say.

On the negative side:

No one actually tells them what’s going to happen to them, and Harry goes in for the ceremony terrified. 

“How exactly do they sort us into houses?” he asked Ron.

“Some sort of test, I think. Fred said it hurts a lot, but I think he was joking.”

Harry’s heart gave a horrible jolt. A test? In front of the whole school? But he didn’t know any magic yet – what on earth would he have to do?

Clearly, the fact that Ron, with four older brothers, didn’t know what would happen means that the tradition is a surprise. But without information, these young people are susceptible to rumors and fears. And for Harry, who doesn’t have enough experience with Hogwarts to have built up trust, this is frightening. And I don’t think “frightening” is the feeling that Hogwarts was going for. So why not explain what was going to happen? Even with an explanation, having a hat tell you your school house would still be a surprise.

The lessons for us: If you don’t currently do so, consider offering a rite of initiation to mark the start of your Confirmation or other formation program, such as recognizing new confirmands in front of the congregation and asking the church to support them. And if you do so, be clear about what you’re doing and why!

Believe me, I don’t fault J.K. Rowling for writing the book this way. One of the great joys of the Harry Potter series is immersing oneself in the wizarding world. Having someone spend pages explaining everything would be boring. But it’s vital for us to remember that it takes time and energy to get oriented. Learning can’t happen without it. We may want to jump into teaching people the essence of faith and tradition, but first they may need to know where to find the classroom.