I hate September.

Well, maybe hate is too strong a word. Or maybe it is not the right word.

I dread September.

Why? Because I hate, or rather, dread going back to school. I’ve felt this way since I was 11 or 12 years old.

Why did I dread school so much?

Because of the bullying, the cliques, the pressure – pressure to excel in sports, in clubs, in academics, in music, in test scores. Pressure to be popular, to be cute, to have nice clothes.

I recall a birthday when I was twelve or thirteen. I had a friend whose birthday was the same as mine. Her mom invited me to go with their family to Disneyland for a day to celebrate. So we could get an early start, I spent the night before the trip at their house. The next morning, my friend’s mother had laid out matching outfits for us – because we were twins, she said. Years later, I realized the matching outfits idea was a clever ruse to get me to dress more nicely than I usually did or could.

Are children around the world experiencing the same kinds of emotions at this time? Well, it is possible that in many countries, they are.

According to the internet, school terms begin in late August or September in Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Egypt, England, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Ukraine, Vietnam, Wales, and the US. In Norway and Scotland, schools start a bit earlier, in the middle of August.

In other parts of the world, September and the end of August are not the months when the school year traditionally begins. In Central America, for instance, it seems that school typically starts near the end of February. In Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, school starts in late January or early February. Brazil’s school year also begins in early February. In Japan, the new school year begins inearly April. Pakistan also uses March or early April as the start of a new school year, and for Korea early March is the time for children to go back to classes. For India and the Philippines, the period is in June and for Indonesia, it is in the middle of July.

I still vividly remember the discomfort of returning to school and wondering if my friends from the previous year would still be my friends. In retrospect, however, I realize that my concerns were very small and rather localized, based on the worries of pre-teens and adolescents in a middle-class school district in southern California. We were concerned about the possibility of an atomic bomb attack, of course, but in some ways that seemed to be a matter of political science fiction. We were not worried about being exposed to COVID or whether there’d be an active shooter on campus. There wasn’t any gang warfare and there weren’t instances of drive-by shootings killing children in the neighborhood. We had enough to eat and homes to return to at the end of the day.

As a teacher, I don’t find the beginning of school quite as stressful as I did in my youth, but trying to update my courses, making sure my advisees are all in the right classes, and using new technological tools are all causes for some distress. These concerns have reminded me what it felt like to be a teenager at this time of year.

So, what do I do to counteract the stress? Often, I turn to fantasy literature, and this month, once again, as the new school year loomed, I have been rereading the Harry Potter stories. I say “once again” because, according to my Chair’s Report in the September 2019 issue of TIRF Today, I had been reading the series that summer too.

This time, I noticed and was puzzled by (perhaps even annoyed by) Harry being so elated to get back to school. Granted, his character has a miserable home life with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, with whom he is forced to live for a few months every year when the Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry shuts down for the summer. But once he gets to school, the new term is not usually as rosy as he had imagined it would be. Exams, essays, Quidditch tryouts, peer pressure, sarcastic teachers (Professor Snape) and even sadistic teachers (Professor Umbridge) await him, as do all kinds of dangerous adventures.

What do these random thoughts have to do with TIRF?

Very little, actually. They have more to do with teaching.

The Harry Potter stories embody many timeless themes that we as teachers – perhaps especially in middle school and secondary school contexts – must keep in mind: Bigotry, bullying, economic disadvantages, racism, healthcare inequities, homelessness, political upheavals, hunger, violent attacks, and identity crises are all part of Harry’s world.  For many students today, these issues are part of day-to-day life.

As difficult as these topics are, episodes in the Harry Potter stories can provide the basis for great reading, listening, and writing or discussion activities in language classes. For this reason, in this Chair’s Report, instead of asking you to give money to TIRF, I am going to offer you a back-to-school gift (even if your school year doesn’t start in September).

A few years ago, some friends and I wrote discussion questions based on the Harry Potter films. My friends (Ben Carignan, Kelly Donovan, and Nick Morales) also contributed ideas for teaching-learning activities. These ideas are posted in the “Resources” section of TIRF’s website as a large Word document. You are welcome to download it, excerpt parts of it, and use any of the material that may be relevant to your teaching context. You can also share it with your colleagues if it would be useful to them.

Let me close by saying I hope these discussion questions and teaching ideas about the Harry Potter stories will be helpful to you and that they may ease the pressures of starting a new term. And of course, in October’s issue of TIRF Today, I will return to the theme of encouraging your donations to TIRF.

Best wishes,