Thinking Outside the Circle: Accessibility and education in Witch Hat Atelier

By: Dee August 19, 20200 Comments
Tartah sits inside a broken glass vial. He puts a hand up to one of the remaining glass shards diving him from the outside. Coco kneels on the other side, putting her hand to the other side of the glass. They look at each other carefully.

Content Warning: Discussions of genocide, ableism, mental illness, and cruelty to kids.

Spoilers for Witch Hat Atelier: Major plot points from volume 1 and general discussion of characters from volumes 1-6.

“It turns out I’m not as hopeless as I thought! I’m not as hopeless as you always said I was! The fact that I can’t do the same things as everyone else might be the key that leads to things that only I can do.”

In the world of Witch Hat Atelier, magic is not some special ability only granted to the “chosen ones,” but a combination of knowledge, hard work, and skill. It takes practice and study, but with the right ink and an understanding of sigils, the only limits are your imagination.

Well. In theory, anyway.

A manga page of a track athlete, a six-flippered whale, a pegasus, a dancer, and an astronaut swirling out of a cloud of smoke. Text reads “Is an athlete always an athlete, even from birth? What about astronauts? Or pop stars? You can’t know what you’re going to be until you grow up, right?”

Witch Hat Atelier begins with the premise that “anyone can become a witch” and then spends practically every volume introducing us to someone who’s been told “no, actually, you can’t,” whether because of their family, their learning speed or style, their physical abilities, or their mental health. Thankfully, the series always proves these naysayers wrong, telling hopeful stories not about “overcoming” differences, but working with and even embracing them.

Using its “magical school” premise, Witch Hat Atelier explores diversity among students and argues for the importance of accessibility throughout society, but especially in education. With supportive mentors and a focus on individual accommodation, anyone really can wield their own kind of magic.

A Bedrock of Bigotry: Witch society past and present

Tetia approaches a humanoid figure made of living metal with its face covered, holding a scimitar. Tetia says “The very first lesson we apprentices receive is about the spells once cast by the witches of old. We learn about their cruel, heart-breaking legacy… and how we must all be cautious to prevent such an age from ever darkening our world again.”

The world of Witch Hat Atelier has a fraught history. Centuries ago, when magical knowledge was available to everyone, people with power used it to exploit and abuse others, particularly along classist and ableist lines. Characters periodically mention these past atrocities, from references to human experimentation to stories of kings who built their castles in the sky so they could literally look down on everyone.

Nowhere is this oppression more horrifically described than the genocides in Romonon, where “the poor, the sick, and the ugly” were deemed to have no “merit” and turned into living statues of gold to decorate the halls of the rich and powerful. Later descriptions of the genocides also mention immigrants and political dissidents, painting a grim picture similar to the fascist governments and eugenics movements of the early 1900s.

An abstract image of a group of people, many of them old or disabled, swirling out of thread-like spinning. Speech bubbles read “Ailing was this man when all the ill were doomed to be sculpture. Grown old had she when any who walked with cane was to be relief carved upon wall. Destitute were these souls and born of foreign lands those. So too for the ugly, and the weak, and, in the end, any who dissent against this cruel injustice.”

Over time, witches who were horrified by these atrocities came together to reform their society. Now, there are strict laws against forbidden spells and the witch community closely guards their knowledge from non-witches (or “outsiders”) in an attempt to keep magic out of the hands of tyrants.

While things have undeniably improved, it’s also undeniable that witch society was built on a foundation of prejudice and that those belief systems still linger in subtle, damaging ways. Witch Hat Atelier understands that not all discrimination is as violent as genocide, but it can still cause real, lasting harm, especially to young people.

Knowledge is Power (And We’re Not Sharing): Class divides and barriers to learning

Qifrey holds a startled Coco under the arms and says "The conjuring ink, the patterns for the casting seals. That’s all it takes. With those, anyone can use magic. Hiding that truth is the one great rule of witches.”

Coco’s role as an “outsider” offers us our first glimpse into the subtle bigotries at play in witch society. Coco has loved magic since she was a child, but since she wasn’t born into a witch family, she has no way of learning spells. As a result, she stumbles into magic without any guidance. She accidentally uses a forbidden spell that turns her mother to stone, leaving Coco traumatized and orphaned.

She’s fortunate that Qifrey, a more open-minded witch and teacher, finds her and takes her under his wing as a new apprentice. Without him, the draconian “Knights Moralis” police force would have wiped Coco’s memory to keep magical knowledge out of the hands of outsiders. Her mother would have been gone forever and she’d have had no idea why.

A close-up of Agott in profile, glaring. She says “I won’t tolerate anyone who can’t keep up with me. There’s nothing to gain spend time with someone beneath me. Especially an outsider.”

There’s a clear class divide between “witch” and “outsider,” one that leads to some of the other characters either snubbing their nose at Coco or treating her like an exotic animal at the zoo. She’s scolded for not knowing things “everyone knows,” and the idea that she could ever truly become a witch receives plenty of skepticism. Fellow apprentice Agott in particular scorns her at first, even tricking her into taking a difficult test in hopes she’ll fail and get expelled.

It isn’t Coco’s fault that she’s playing catch-up to the other students—she literally had no way of learning magic before—but some people treat her like it is. Witches talk a lot about how magic should be used to help everyone, but the way many of them look down on Coco proves they still see themselves as “better” because of the knowledge they’ve kept from her.

Agott glares at a shocked Coco and snaps “All those things are your fault, Coco! If you could grasp just how unschooled and uninformed you really are, maybe you’d do us all a favor and quit trying!”

It’s reminiscent of the way many education systems (but especially the U.S.) are skewed in favor of wealthier students because of assumptions that everyone has access to the same resources (time, reading materials, adult support, etc.) and early education that many simply do not have. 

When we don’t provide these resources and then punish the students (or, just as often, the teachers) for not knowing the things that “everyone knows,” it only serves to discourage them. Coco is an upbeat kid, but even she worries that she really doesn’t belong here. If it weren’t for Qifrey and some of the other apprentices (Tetia in particular), Coco’s situation could have been just as deeply isolating as that of many real-world students.

One Size Fits Few: Exclusive and inclusive communities

Qifrey and Coco stand together outside, looking over their shoulders. Coco seems concerned. Qifrey says “I imagine ours must be a tough world for him to live in. Refusal to accommodate differences is not an admirable quality of witch society.”

This narrow-minded thinking doesn’t end with “insider” versus “outsider,” either. Even among witches, there are ample signs of a strict, conformity-driven society that discourages diversity in ability.

Coco’s fellow apprentices Agott and Richeh both came to Qifrey’s atelier because traditional education systems failed them. Agott’s prestigious family shunned her for not having enough “natural talent,” essentially rejecting her for getting Bs instead of As. Richeh’s former teachers insisted she solve problems using the same answers as everyone else, stifling her creativity to the point where she rejected learning altogether.

Two manga panels. In the first, a young Richeh reaches out to papers covered in spell circles that are in the hands of an adult with their back to the panel. The adult says “If you don’t cease with these useless spells, you’ll never develop into a proper witch. Why can’t you simply do as I say?” In the single panel, the hand flips the papers into the air. The same person shouts, “Enough! Throw these scribbles into the trash!”

Students outside of Qifrey’s atelier fare even worse, leading to clear cases of discrimination against both physical and mental disabilities. Tartah is a boy with “Silverwash” (this world’s version of colorblindness) who’s told from a young age that he can never be a witch because he won’t be able to work with dyes or recognize magic powders on sight. 

Similarly, the young apprentice Euini has severe social and performance anxiety. Like many kids who do well on homework but freeze up during tests, Euini struggles to draw spells when others are watching—an anxiety that’s only made worse by his teacher constantly telling him he’s worthless.

Three manga panels. In the narrow first one, Tartah crouches down and laments “Not this again! Why?! Why does everyone else just assume we all see the world the same way?!” In the next panel, he looks pensive. The final panel is a flashback to a young Tartah, curled with his knees to his chest, with the feet of adults behind him. The adults say “Silverwash, hm? Well, that rules out any complex magic. No dyes. Even as a stationer, he’ll never really excel.” “It might not be an issue while he’s young, but later on…” “Thank goodness his carving at least shows promise.”

In just about every volume, Witch Hat engages with prejudices and proves how much they hurt the young students who don’t perfectly fit the image of a “proper witch.” Fortunately, the series also fights back against these prejudices, showing how teachers and students alike can use knowledge, creativity, and compassion to build a more inclusive world.

Qifrey gets the ball rolling by having a major advantage that most real-world teachers do not: he only has four students, which gives him plenty of one-on-one time with them and the opportunity to cater his lessons to their skill level. It’s a quietly compelling argument for smaller classroom sizes, highlighting how much easier it is to accommodate everyone when you, y’know, actually have the time to do so.

But it’s not just that he has few students; he’s also an attentive teacher who works to understand their needs, providing encouragement and instruction in equal measures. He may push them outside their comfort zones at times, but he also makes it clear he’ll respect their wishes if they truly don’t want to do something. Perhaps most importantly, Qifrey gives each of his apprentices the space to be themselves, allowing their unique perspectives to enrich their own lives and each other’s.

Three manga panels. Qifrey smiles at Coco and says “When uncertainty strikes, try reminding yourself of your strengths out loud.” Coco looks at the paper in her hands with confusion and says “My straight lines.” Then she looks up with surprise, hugging the paper to her chest, and cries, “Straight lines are my speciality! I’m good at drawing straight lines!”

Coco in particular uses her perspective as a former outsider to come up with solutions the other students miss because they all grew up in the same environment. For example, when Tartah tells her he can’t recognize the colors of ground-up medicinal herbs, Coco doesn’t toss up her hands like everyone else. Instead, she invents a spell that Tartah can use to show him a complete image of the original plant.

It seems like an obvious answer in a world full of magic—but then, so do a lot of accessibility modifications in the real world, and yet we’re still struggling to implement them. By thinking outside the box (or spell circle, in this case), Coco shows how different perspectives can challenge accepted “truths” and open doors to new possibilities.

In three small manga panels, Euini lands wearing a cloak of shadows and says “It’s a little embarrassing, having to hide… but I think…” In the final, larger panel, he looks up with a near-smile and finishes: “Maybe… this is my way.”

Admittedly, because Coco comes up with the spell (although Tartah does help her draw it), Tartah’s story has a whiff of the “able-bodied savior” trope to it. Thankfully, Witch Hat helps balance this in its next story arc with Euini, who comes up with his own strategy to cope with his anxiety. 

Once he’s in a place where the teachers and students around him are encouraging him instead of laughing at him, Euini quickly realizes he can use magic to hide in plain sight, giving him the sense of security he needs to draw spells even when other people are around. It’s a minor change that leads to a major boost in self-confidence, as he starts to realize he can “turn his weaknesses into strengths.” Even small adjustments can make a big difference.

Pass It On: Generational links and the future of the Atelier

Olruggio looks skeptically at Beldaruit and says “You sure that’s all right? Seems like a pretty big exception.” Beldaruit confidently declares, “I care not for rigid systems! Education must be flexible!”

Witch Hat Atelier is an ongoing manga, so it’s not clear how the story is going to resolve all these undercurrents about accessibility in education. What is clear is that these undercurrents aren’t going away any time soon. The latest volume (6) introduces Beldaruit, Qifrey’s charmingly eccentric former teacher who appears to be paralyzed and gets around using a magic ram chair.

We’re still learning about him, but it’s not hard to draw a line between his disregard for rigid rules and the repressive society he lives in. It’s even easier to see how Beldaruit’s unorthodox teaching style influenced Qifrey, showing him how to support his own students, who in turn are now supporting others.

The possibility that a disabled person began this current “chain of inclusivity” also helps lessen that touch of “able-bodied savior syndrome” mentioned earlier. Coco is an important link in an ongoing process (and abled folks do need to do their part to enact social change), but she’s also not the beginning or end of it.

A page of manga. In the top panel, Euini reaches out a hand to his master’s back, walking away from him, and cries: “Master! I have something to say! It turns out I’m not as hopeless as I thought! I’m not as hopeless as you always said I was!” In the bottom panel, Euini, covered in shadows, raches up a hand to touch an upside-down road. He says with a smile, “My master might not be able to understand, but the fact that I can’t do the same things as everyone else might be the key that leads to the things that only I can do.”

Maybe most importantly, Witch Hat Atelier doesn’t fall into the fantasy-genre trap of trying to use magic to “fix” its characters’ differences. Coco doesn’t need to let go of her “outsider” past anymore than Tartah needs to be “cured” of Silverwash. Euini’s anxiety lessens thanks to coping strategies and a support network, but it’s still very much there, the same way it is for folks in the real world.

Their differences are a part of who they are and how they see the world. Instead of trying to force them to conform or give them up as “hopeless,” Witch Hat argues that schools and society at-large should accept and accommodate their differences. The series’ best teachers understand that, helping all of their students to grow and thrive at their own pace with strategies tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Witch society may be littered with prejudices, but this young generation of “oddball” teachers and “outcast” apprentices are hard at work trying to make the world a more inclusive, accessible place. Here’s hoping they succeed and encourage readers to do the same.

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