The next in my series of Artist’s Dates in New York City was unexpected. My son and I had planned to visit the free Game of Thrones Exhibition (GoT will figure later in this series of Artist’s Dates posts), but when we arrived on a sunny Sunday morning, well before the opening time, the line of people already extended nearly the length of the very long block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. So, instead, we headed south to attend the Harry Potter Exhibition in Times Square.
Harry Potter—the books, the movies, the characters and world—played an integral role in our son’s childhood, as it did for so many children of the Millennium Generation. Going through the exhibit with him reminded me that it also was a large part of my life during those years. I had read most but not all of the books when he did, and the summer before he went to college, I read all of the books in order without pausing so that we could discuss them on our daily walks. I will always remember seeing the final film in a theater full of members of “the Harry Generation” and getting as much from watching and listening to their collective reactions—the sighs, the cheers, the gasps, the spontaneous applause—as I did from what was on the screen.
The exhibit was shamelessly commercial in some respects. No photography was allowed, and while we muggles could don striped scarves and hold Alivan’s-inspired wands to have our photo taken upon entering, the cheapest print one could receive of those photos was $20. The exhibit ends, as all such exhibits do, with an extensive gift shop, where the new generation of Harry Potter fans begged their parents for stuffed owls and quidditch sweatshirts.
None of that bothered me, however. Not in the least. I was too much immersed in the amazing, magical, real world that J. K. Rowling invented long before she had a clue what her own future would hold.
In her commencement address to Harvard in 2008, Rowling spoke about the tenuous security of academic success and the freedom that comes with having nothing but those we love, “an old typewriter and a big idea” (scroll to the bottom of this post to view the entire speech):
“[W]hy do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
What did our son—now 21 years old and preparing to graduate from college, get married, and go to law school—choose as we made our way through the aforementioned gift shop? A Dumbledore’s Army t-shirt.
That unabashed idealism, a sense that we really can band together despite our differences and have an impact in and on our world, is what I love most about Rowling’s “big idea.” To what extent have the young adults of today internalized the idea of Dumbledore’s Army, making them just a little more willing to step forward when called upon rather than succumb to the bystander effect, a little more hesitant to be cynical in a world hungry for optimism?
Or, for that matter, how many 40-something mothers?
Tomorrow: Artist’s Date, New York Weekend Edition continues with Tom Hanks on Broadway.