The Education of a Witch

Which could also be titled, “The Education of a Large Segment of the Population Deemed to be ‘Bad'”. Anyway, you should really go and read this short story by Ellen Klages, who had been added to my ‘authors to investigate’ list because this story is just… intelligentheartbreakingrealhonesttrue.

Here’s the comment I posted to Ada Hoffmann’s blog, who initally linked to the story.

Yes, [Lizzy is treated almost entirely as a problem and not a person, and there seems to be no one willing to acknowledge that she’s feeling scared and abandoned,] although there’s almost a touch of understanding when Mrs Dickens goes ‘ah, new baby, of course’. I confess, I hoped at that point that Mrs Dickens would know what was going on and had isolated Lizzy in order to come talk to her about witches being real but that she had to be responsible with her talents etc etc… Mm, been reading too much Pratchett lately, I think. (Not that it is ‘too much’, just that my expectations were clearly set too high).

I feel ridiculously sorry for Lizzy; I love that she’s challenging the dominant narrative; I am annoyed at the parents for their blatant disrespect for that, and depressed because so many adults do exactly that.

I didn’t read the ending as intented murder, though. The narrative says she was angry at Mum and the baby and wotsie, the boy, so she made the boy’s nose bleed. She’s drawing up the fire at the end not to kill anyone (though granted that may be an unintended consequence) but to express her anger, something that no one has been allowing her to do before now.

Kids are not born knowing how to express their emotions. It’s something adults are supposed to teach them as they grow up. Poor Lizzy has no one even ACKNOWLEDGING her emotions, let alone showing her how to appropriately express them – of course she’s going to let them out any way she can.

But for me, this was not the least bit creepy, and was terribly, terribly sad. Horrific, yes, but not in the scary-creepy-horror story sense. Rather in the ‘that is so tragic it is horrifying’ sense.

Heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. A very intelligent and commanding story.


Basically, it boils down to something it’s trendy to call ‘ageism’, which frankly as a term I do not like, simply because a lot of people (willfully) misunderstand it to mean that children should be given free rein. However, this is a misunderstanding caused by a conflation of the two concepts ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’, and a whole lot of nineteenth century notions about the supremacy of the individual versus society, etc and so on. Having equal rights does not entail being allowed to do whatever the hell you like.

Ageism, therefore, is not about treating kids the same as adults, i.e. never telling them what to do, not forcing them to do anything they don’t want to, etc (why? because frankly that’s stupid and unhealthy :P), but rather about giving children equal RESPECT to adults – which, ultimately, is what we actually mean when we talk about ‘equal rights’ anyway. Equal doesn’t mean identical, and there is no way that everyone on the planet ever CAN have identical lives – also, HOW BLAND. Rather, we want everyone to be equally respected, and have access to things based on that respect. Though, dude, clean water and food would be a nice way to begin with the ‘equal means identical’ thing.

Ahem. Sidetracking. My specialty. Ageism, therefore, is a concept that refers to the way that children are discriminated against not in the behavioural sense per se, but in terms of respect for their emotions. People who say ‘Oh, I wish /I/ was a baby again!’ (and with a currently-10-month-old, yes, I’ve heard that several times in the last year) MAKE ME MAD. OH, SO YOU’D LOVE TO BE UNABLE TO MOVE YOURSELF AROUND, TEND TO YOUR OWN BASIC NEEDS, COMMUNICATE ANYTHING BUT THE MOST BASIC OF CONCEPTS (smiling or crying), EXPERIENCE HORRIBLE PAIN THAT IS ALSO TERRIFYING BECAUSE HEY, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS FEELING THAT I HAVE NEVER EVER FELT BEFORE AND WHY DOES IT HURT AND WILL IT EVER STOP AND HOW DO I KNOW I’M NOT DYING? (Also known as stomach upsets and teething). Oh YES, being a baby sounds FREAKING AWESOME. NOT.

And yet, there are people out there to whom I have said almost exactly that (though I promise, with less capitalisation), who still go – eh, they get to sleep all day and don’t have to do anything.

Way to completely dismiss someone else’s humanity, moron. A cow gets to sleep all day and do nothing too. Maybe you’d be better off bovine.

So. If you haven’t yet, go read the story. It’s a beautiful (if fantastic ;)) example of what happens when children’s emotions are dismissed as not real, or not real enough, or simply just not as real as adult feelings. Guys, I REMEMBER being a child. Compared to life now, sure, I had it good; most kids do. But at this time, being a kid is all you know, and pain still hurts. Give the little people* some respect.


* And yes, all of this is a large part of the reason why the 10-mth-old has been called Small Person and Small Boy his entire life. I feel awkward calling him a baby, because it’s too close to synonymous with ‘squidgy thoughtless blob’, and he is anything but. He IS a person – just a very small, very inexperienced one.

Happy = Unrealistic

In response to Michelle’s fabulous post here.

Actually, I reject the notion that endings can be divided into ‘happy’ and ‘more realistic’. This is a topic of frequent debate at work (i.e. in the English faculty), because there are certainly those in the faculty who despite any kind of popular or populist fiction as ‘trashy’, those of use who take a more midline approach, and those of us who would be more than happy to teach Twilight for its literary merit. I am refraining from commenting on that one, because we are all entitled to our own opinions, but suffice to say I am in the midline group.

One of the most interesting characteristics that delineate the approximately two groups (teach only highbrow lit fic, and teach more accessible texts that have equal merit too) is that it more or less ends up being a discussion about teaching sad endings versus teaching happy endings. Many of the classics are quite bleak, and it is entirely possible to get through several years of schooling and not read a single happy ending.

Personally, I protest. WHY are sad, bleak or depressing endings more valuable than happy ones? One argument is that they are ‘more realistic’, but that entirely depends on whose reality you are living. I have ups and downs in my life, as we all do, but honestly, on balance, my endings are happy. I have a great job, a wonderful family, a lovely home… I am privileged and (by global comparison) wealthy. My endings are happy. A bleak book does NOT reflect my reality, not at all.

I’ve talked about this before – why I don’t believe in depressing fiction.

I’m not saying that we should abstain from sad, depressing endings. I’m not saying that endings should be saccharine. Personally, I find the most satisfying endings are the ones that are bittersweet, or the ones that are happy, but where the happy ending was hard-won. No, I’m pretty sure most people don’t have saccharine endings. No, I’m pretty sure that for most of the world, things do not just appear out of the blue to give you a happily ever after. Some people like those books, and that’s great – whether because the books are wish fulfilment, or because for a small minority they really truly do reflect their reality, it doesn’t matter. Some people like sad, bleak and depressing endings too, and while I’m pretty sure that’s not wish fulfilment, and I acknowledge that it’s the reality for a much larger percentage of the global population, it’s still not the norm for the average voracious western reader, which, let’s face it, is the target market for a ridiculously high percentage of these books.

Ultimately, I couldn’t care less which kind of ending you prefer. I am free to teach ‘happy books’ in my classes, and my colleagues are free to teach bleak fiction in theirs, and you as a reader are free to prefer whichever the heck kind of books you want to. But please: can we all stop pretending that happy endings are less realistic than bleak ones? Because for the majority of readers, that’s just not true.

Man, When Perfected, is the Best of Animals

Ten points if you know where that quote comes from 😉

This is something I meant to post a few weeks ago, and I’ve lost all of it now but the fundamental point. Never mind. It’s still worth noting.

Society has spent millenia praising and revering the intellect. Man is a creature of reason, we are told; all that separates us from animals is our ability to plan, to think, to rationalise. The people accorded the highest honour in our culture are the ones whose professions require great intellect, feats of mental gymnastics: traditionally, doctors, lawyers, pilots, bankers. These are the steadfast pillars of our society, the trusty, the reliable, the people who can witness documents for you. Because everyone knows that artists are flighty, actors are liars, and writers – well, they could make anything up.

The right side of our brain, home of creativity, imagination and to some degree, emotion, is not prized so heavily. There is a video I show to my creative writing classes about a man whose epilepsy was so bad, the doctors decided the only feasible course of action was to sever his corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibres that connect the two halves of your brain (fascinating video, only ten minutes, go watch it). It concludes with the scientific researcher noting that they have a saying around their lab: don’t leave home without your left hemisphere.

Personally, I would like to reject this implication. This statement is, in essence, saying that the only worthwhile human is one who can think, reason and observe. The right hemisphere is superfluous; we can get on perfectly well without it.

Ridiculous. A human who does not feel, who cannot empathise, who cannot imagine or create – what on earth kind of human is that? Not human, obviously – a robot. I think it’s telling that one of the most difficult factors in creating artificial intelligence that can pass for human is not in making a computer reason, but in making it imagine. People, let us not fool ourselves: sympathy, empathy, feelings, creativity, intuition, imagination – we can’t live without these things either.

Reason alone does not set us apart from animals – and even that is a claim that grows more tenuous by the hour. Chims make spears. Crows solve logic puzzles. Elephants craft fly swats. Dolphins use sponges, otters make nutcrackers, degus (small rodents) use rakes, and octopuses make coconut-shell armour. Dude. COCONUT-SHELL ARMOUR.

Art, culture, creativity – our right hemisphere is JUST AS IMPORTANT in constructing our identity as humans as our left hemisphere. (And, intriugingly, creativity sets us apart from animals in much the same way that reason does – i.e., tenuously. Dolphins play with bubble rings. Elephants can paint portraits of other elephants. Apes use sign language to communicate feelings). Why does society value it so little (comparatively)?

Possibly, because it seems untrustworthy. Creativity occurs largely in the realm of the subconscious, making it appear somewhat like magic at worse, and unpredictable and finnicky at best. Still. That’s no reason to dismiss half of what makes us human. I mean seriously. Come on.

I’ve remembered what inspired this: an article by Elizabeth Esther where she talks about the way that society shuns ‘overly emotional’ people. Sure, ‘overly logical’ people aren’t exactly a bundle of fun sometimes, but there is nowhere near the stigma against them, against interpreting a situation through our physical senses, as there is against emotional people, against interpreting life through the lense of our emotions. Which is stupid, because as noted above, the depth of our emotions separates us from animals just as much (or, yes, just as little) as the heights of our logical reasoning.

Fundamentally, I suspect, it’s got to do with the fact that we seek an unalterable objective reality – ‘truth’. Which again does nothing more than reveal our bias; we only strive to be objective (in essays, research, debates, etc) because we subjectively believe it to be important. But that is probably another post altogether; I’ve rambled definitely enough.