By Veronica Dickson La Rotta
Hermione Granger syndrome (noun): wanting to throw yourself unabashedly and romantically into your academic passions while understanding it comes with inevitable peer-sanctioned disdain; being too extra in class.
I’m not the first to have stared at my Harry Potter collection, wishing deeply I could conjure up Hermione and ask to sit next to her for a bit—just two girls who are a little tired of being shut down. “Are you incapable of restraining yourself, or do you take pride in being an insufferable know- it-all?” said Snape, while the class tittered. Hermione: I’m so sorry.
It was in middle school that I began to notice things get out of hand. He wouldn’t do the readings for our English project. My hands would grip the corners of the desk until my knuckles shone white. I growled at him under my breath saying that his behavior was both intolerable and unacceptable, that he’d better get his shit together real fast. In my history class, another guy wouldn’t let me pay attention to the lecture, so I would turn around and scream. The following week as I headed down a school hallway I heard him spit out “bitch” to his friend, just loud enough for me to hear.
Then, in the ninth grade, I committed my pièce de résistance. It was a science project, and we were all assigned pieces to complete of a paper on the scientific method. We were given weeks, but the night before the due date I still hadn’t received so much as an email from any of the boys that made up the rest of the group. I slid my copy of Prisoner of Azkaban off the shelf and opened to page 293, chapter 15: “Harry and Ron both made furious moves toward Malfoy, but Hermione got there first SMACK! She had slapped Malfoy across the face with all the strength she could muster. Malfoy staggered. Harry, Ron, Crabbe, and Goyle stood flabbergasted as Hermione raised her hand again.” Nice. I closed up the book and walked to my computer. I typed up my research notes and conclusions and reached for a clean sheet of A4 paper. Twenty minutes later, I stapled a savage, yet illustrious piece to my homework explaining why it was only 20% complete. You see, I was not in the business of subsidizing free riders, so if the teacher could kindly fail them and grade me based on my merit, I would be most grateful.
I’m not particularly proud of these memories. They roil deep in my stomach, as I kick myself wondering why I didn’t just chill out. Was I really reduced to a writhing ball of petty rage when confronted with difficult team dynamics or was there something else at play? Everyone else had understood at that point that it just wasn’t cool to devote yourself to doing work you could really be proud of. Frankly, interest in the subject matter is irrelevant. Just relax, don’t make waves, and please do not be that girl again.
By the time college came around, I was salivating at the prospect of surrounding myself with the most brilliant and devoted progeny the world had to offer. I had never felt that I’d quite mastered the complex social dance that is “group work.” Yes, we are all homo economicus, the rational man who seeks to gain the greatest reward with the least amount of effort. But what about doing a good job merely because you’re interested in getting smarter? I never knew how to navigate asking more from my peers than they were willing to give. I could never manage my expectations for those that surrounded me. It was implausible for me to think that the same characters who had sneered at me in middle school would ever be allowed to cross the threshold of these Ivy gates.
But the thing about dynamics ingrained in you as a kid isn’t just that they stay with you into adulthood; the patterns we fall into become the social norms we draw upon and rely on every day. We use them as an explanation for others’ behaviors and as justifiers for our own. They’re not immutable, but re-socializing ourselves is not something we’re all committed to doing. There have been times at this school that I’ve been disappointed and wanted more from my peers, more frank engagement with the material. It goes beyond grade grubbing and office hours. I never hear people encouraging each other to bring in a personal experience with the topic, or congratulating someone for using just the right word. I want to know people in my classes have feelings that extend beyond “I’m so stressed, let me finish this as soon as possible.”
It’s been three years since that ball dropped, and I’ve been learning to adjust and find ways to feel satisfied without feeling scrutinized in class. And I’d say a little self-adjustment isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve learned to be a bit more quiet, and with that I also learned how to listen, a skill I had not yet fully developed. When I took the time to listen, it became much easier to perceive undertones in the relationships classmates form, the dynamics that we all know exist but often fail to recognize, critically reflect on, and challenge publicly. This piece has a narrative thread I’ve been pivoting around, and it’s that women are generally the ones who feel this guilt and pressure not to be so present all the time. Paradoxically, we are the hallowed caregivers in all relationships and are often tasked with the busywork necessary to complete the assignment at all. We make the Google docs, we text in the Groupme, we go see the teachers. A friend relayed to me that her professor even suggested she get started on planning her reading group ahead of time. There’s no way her male peers would do it, so the task would have to land on her.
I’ve also recognized my own hypocrisy in all of this. In all corners of my heart I feel joy when women take what’s theirs in this icky world. But in class I automatically begin to form groups in my head, mentally assessing the skill level of each participant and inevitably creating strata based on gender. I love to participate and that rush you get when all members of the conversation take the time to applaud your contribution to the discourse. And competition is not an inherent evil, but damn if I don’t admire the smartest most eloquent men in the classroom and resent the brilliant girl who challenges my spot in the hierarchy of Smartest and Best Female student. Internalized misogyny runs deep, and I believe only very few ever shake off its dead weight. The girl who speaks up and brings the conversation to a deeper and more robust place doesn’t create bonds of kinship with me, but rather is presented as a threat to my status. The guy who brings in an outside source and impresses us all with his deep knowledge on the subject is a person of intrigue, adding to my understanding without challenging it. Turns out even the Hermione Grangers out there perpetuate the very systems that they seek to dismantle.
It’s been a long time since I last lost it during a group project. I’ve learned how to be assertive without being alienating (I think!) and have grown more confident at letting my inner nerd out. I know the manic pixie dream girl thing is problematic, but I have to hand it to Zoe Deschanel for bringing female quirk and passion into the zeitgeist. All Hermione wanted was to find a kindred spirit to share questions that piqued an interest in her or who could recommend a good book (Aside: Total copout that she married Ron. Her immortal words ring in my ear: “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” She deserved better and we all know it.)
I am not the same voracious freshman that resented those who skipped class or skimmed material. I’ve learned that the onus is largely on us to invite our classmates into the conversation, and show interest in their niche and varied interests. Luck favors the bold after all (Felix Felicis anyone??), and even if you haven’t found them yet, your dork crew will find you.
As graduation hastens, I see myself falling back into old patterns. I’m salivating at the prospect of joining the workforce, finally surrounding myself by truly like-minded individuals, individuals who won’t fall prey to petty childhood standards of coolness. I recognize in the back of my brain that this is unrealistic and that I’m setting myself up for disaster, but I come prepared now! It’s clear to me that the divisions drawn between men and women and inequities experienced in college are only a drop in the bucket compared to the realities of the workplace. I’ll say it again, internalized misogyny runs deep. We hold galas and benefits uplifting women and encouraging them to adjust to society and take up space like the men do, just to turn around and ask to turn the volume down. In the books, Rowling gave Hermione a happy ending, granting her a cushy government job in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, but I think that shit is harder to come by than a fantasy novel would have you believe. In the end, my only solace is that I (and others) are always evolving, role models for me keep popping up, and Rowling came out on Twitter and admitted that Hermione should have ended up with Harry Potter. I KNOW.