20 Years On: A Fan Looks Back On What Harry Potter Taught Her
The rickety old wooden door shook with each booming knock. Lightning flashed, and, when each crack of thunder subsided, I could hear the rain gouging holes into the supersaturated mud that lay outside the door. With one final knock, the door burst open, coming off its hinges and falling forward onto the dusty floor. Eight year-old me gasped as I held onto my popcorn, craning my neck up at the giant figure on the movie theatre screen.
There are some very clear moments that I can recall at the drop of a pin, and the moment Rubeus Hagrid came to tell Harry Potter that he was a wizard is perhaps one of the clearest.
I had just turned 8, and was at my best friend Megan’s birthday party which was appropriately themed around the wizarding world. We got wands and little wizard figurines as party favors, and we were all seeing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. It felt like I had been waiting a lifetime for that movie.
My father had dutifully read the first two Harry Potter books to me over the past few months: a chapter a night before bed normally followed by pleas for ‘just one more.’ My birthday gift had been Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which soon became the next bedtime book. Our veterinarian had even acknowledged my obsession with the series gifting me his paperback copy of the Sorcerer’s Stone that became my weekly show and tell at school. I read a chapter each week to my class until two school bullies tried to get me in trouble for using the same item every week.
I had not yet started collecting Harry Potter merchandise–from bookmarks and Bertie Botts Beans to clothing and figurines. I had not yet started imagining my own adventures with Hogwarts. I had not yet decided that someday, if I ever got married, it would be Harry Potter themed. That would all come over the following ten years.
At 8, I was obsessed in all of the best ways and finally getting to see the very first movie was my reward for being patient. As the lights dimmed, I thought that this was going to be the best movie I was ever going to see. But at that moment when the half-giant Hagrid smiled down at the boy with the scar and taped glasses telling him that he was, in fact, very special, I knew it was going to be so much more.
My connection with Harry Potter may seem like any run-of-the-mill, little-kid-turned-book-nerd obsession, but now as a 24-year-old book addict with the latest wave of Harry Potter themed films and the first Harry Potter book in over 8 years, the truth is I’m all that and more. I’m the little red-haired girl from Upstate NY, who grew up with the boy who lived.
I was the type of kid who ran to either books or a pen and paper for comfort. When everything else in the world seemed to go wrong I could climb inside the well-worn pages, falling through the typed words to find my best friends and run off headfirst into a new adventure.
I had learned to read in Kindergarten thanks to my parents’ attentiveness and the school’s books with corresponding tapes that you could read along with. When the tapes didn’t read the words fast enough for me I stopped using them, and by the end of the year I was reading chapter books.
My first literary friends were Jack and Annie from Mary Pope Osbourne’s Magic Treehouse series who were transported through time and legend to find objects for Morgan le Fay. The summer after kindergarten I finally got my own library card and tried, like Matilda, to make the acquaintance of Ishmael, but was only able to walk with him for one chapter. But the young wizard facing dangers every school-year with his friends Ron & Hermione was the one friend I kept returning to. While the Harry Potter series got so many kids really interested in reading, it made me even more interested in writing. Everything I did, from recess games to childish writings, centered on Harry Potter. I even used to bring my imaginary friend Harry to Thanksgiving with me until even my family “acknowledged” him. I had Harry Potter journals where I would try to write down my own adventures with my wizarding friends. On my 11th birthday I waited for my owl to arrive all day insisting that it would, and if it didn’t, it was only lost.
While I was enraptured by Harry Potter and his friends for most of 2001, the rest of the world was still dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When I began writing this, I didn’t believe that the two shared the same year at all. I still have trouble realizing that the first Harry Potter movie premiered a little over two months after the fall of the Twin Towers. In my mind, there is a very clear split between the worst thing imaginable and the start of my journey with Harry Potter.
At the time, I was old enough for my parents to try to explain what had happened on that sunny September day, and I remember seeing the news, but not really understanding how terrible it was. My senior year of college I saw a video of live footage from that day taken by news teams and civilians capturing the despair. I sat down on my bed and cried for a half hour, for the first time feeling what I can only imagine my parents felt 15 years prior. I’ve always dreamed of living in New York City, and when I called my mother later that day I was still in tears.
In 2001, on that beautifully horrible September Day, I have my other clearest memory of my childhood. I was in 2nd grade when the first tower was hit, and we were in the middle of a lesson. I have a sneaking suspicion it was math, because when the loudspeaker crackled to life with a ridiculous code word like “Key Lime Pie” or “Boston Cream Donut” we abandoned what we were doing, and I was excited to leave it behind. My teacher, Mrs. Sedlack, very calmly turned off all the lights and pulled the blinds down over the windows. She gathered her entire class to the reading area of the classroom, and settled herself down on the old couch. While the rest of the world was collapsing, Mrs. Sedlack, who had a husband at work and a 4-year-old son at daycare, read book after book to her class of 20 little kids whose parents were watching the world stop. In gratitude, the parents bought her a new, comfier couch for her dedication to preserving her students’ innocence.
I went home that day excited to tell my mom all about my amazing, book-filled day at school. I didn’t think my life could be any better, and I was sure it had to be the best day in the whole wide world until my mom told me that there were some very bad men who had done some very bad things. I found out the following week that one of the girls in my class lost her uncle at the World Trade Center that day. I don’t know if they ever recovered his body.
The Harry Potter universe provided an escape for me whenever the world was falling apart. My well-worn copies have been read so many times, I’ve stopped keeping track. They always seemed to provide a portal when I needed it most. When the films came out, it seemed that the opportunities opened new portals into magical moments.
When I was 9, my school hosted a Harry Potter night in the gymnasium as a fund-raiser. For one magical evening, my world was the one Harry Potter lived in. Older students had made booths to mimic Diagon Alley, and the gym was buzzing with kids running to buy Bertie Botts beans and wands and chocolate frogs.
I was dressed up as Hermione Granger, complete with a wand and my very own Crookshanks. I was even featured in the local paper for my costume and my excitement. It was, for the 9-year-old me, the best night of my life. Because of my costume, I got an extra raffle entry to win my very own Nimbus 2000 that one of the senior students’ fathers made. It turned out that maybe magic did exist because my parents helped me cart the broom home at the end of the night. It balanced on the curtain rod in my bedroom until it fell apart shortly after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out.
I don’t remember much else about the event, except that it culminated in a showing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and I sat with my little sister to watch it all over again. Our eyes were glued to the screen and I felt like I was watching it for the first time all over again.
That night when I went home and fell asleep, I thought for sure I would dream of Quidditch and magic classes, but instead I had the first of a recurring nightmare I still have to this day. I guess not all of Harry Potter’s influence was good.
It starts the same way: I am in my childhood bedroom, complete with pink painted walls and a plastic lamp with a rocking horse balanced on three alphabet blocks. My parents are outside listening to the news, but from the sound quality I know they are listening to the radio and not the TV. The announcer is warning locals of mysterious disappearances in wooded areas in New York. When the sound fades, I am standing on our back porch calling the family dog. While everything else about the dream stays the same, the dog always changes. When I was young it was our black lab Bootsie, during my pre-teen years it was our second lab, Jessie. Now it is always our pitbull Cricket. I call the dog, and see them in the woods wrestling with something, and when the dog finally listens and runs to me, I see it was wrestling with a hooded figure who floats with unnatural speed towards me. I wake up in a cold sweat with a scream at the back of my throat.
Sometimes my obsession with Harry Potter led to extraordinary opportunities. When I was 12, one of my mom’s old teenage employees, Jackie, had a job at the Martha Stewart Show. I came home from a particularly harrowing day of sixth grade to have my customary cup of tea and chocolate chip cookies with my mom when she asked: “How would you like to go see Daniel Radcliffe on Thursday?”
It turned out that Martha Stewart needed audience members, and Jackie thought of my sister and I with our noses always buried in the latest release. Being like Hermione, I was terrified to miss school since actual absences were only applicable if you were sick, had a doctor’s appointment or had a family emergency. My mom jokingly said we had to go visit her “sick Aunt Martha” in NYC. I panicked about it, but as the day of the show got closer, the jitters were replaced with butterflies in my stomach. I was going to see Daniel Radcliffe up close and in person.
We went down that day with Jackie’s cousins, her aunt and her mom and waited in line to get seats. The entire time mom kept reminding us to not expect too much. We’d probably get the extra seats, but Jackie had an ace up her sleeve. She caught us just before it was our turn to go in and asked if we all had a question ready for Mr. Radcliffe. I had about a million. What was it like on set? Did he have a favorite book? What was his favorite part of being Harry Potter? I would have volunteered to interview him if I could. When we all said yes, she told the gentleman in charge and we four kids were led to the fourth row from Martha Stewart’s counter top.
When Daniel Radcliffe came out later in the show, we were maybe 10 feet away from him. Jackie’s cousin Briar and I were seated right in front of a camera so whenever the show went to commercial break we chattered about how Daniel Radcliffe had looked over at us and smiled. I can’t remember another time I was so excited. It seemed like a dream a week after the show, and even now I have a hard time believing it happened. I was never lucky, but for one afternoon I got to sit ten feet away from my celebrity crush.
I went back to school the next day, and my teacher asked if I had enjoyed my visit with my “sick Aunt Martha” and winked. She had known where we were going the entire time.
Harry Potter didn’t just give me nightmares and make-believe fantasies. As Harry, Ron and Hermione grew up, I grew up with them. When I had my first real crush, I retreated to the books to see what Harry or Hermione would do. When I had my first heartbreak, I understood Harry’s mopiness, and Hermione’s anger at Ron and Lavender Brown. Every major life event for me would resonate with something in one of the books: my first dance, my first date, even my first kiss. Those things were never exactly a first for me because I had lived them in some way through Rowling’s writing. I knew how life could go wrong. I would find myself saying “so this is how it really is.” The book world prepared me for things I would face, and not all of them would be good.
At 18, I lost my cousin Michael to suicide, at 20 my cousin Thomas to cancer. I had dealt with the deaths of grandparents as I grew up with Harry Potter, but I suddenly began to understand Harry’s, and Hogwarts’, stunned response to the death of Cedric Diggory. There was no reason for it. There was no reason for the deaths of Sirius, or Fred or even James and Lily Potter. It made me angry, but it also reminded me that life ends. Rowling never shied away from breaking our hearts, because it taught her readers how to cope with loss.
Life is about loss. You lose your baby teeth, you lose your innocence, and you lose people you care about. But they never truly leave you, because like Lily Potter’s love for Harry, they will always surround you. I still see things and think of my cousins, much like people would think of Harry’s mum when they looked into his eyes. Life means we lose people, but it doesn’t mean that it has to end for us. We have to keep on living, and carrying them with us. That’s how they live on.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out when I was 14 years old. I reread every book before biking up to my mailbox and waiting for the mailman to deliver my preorder. I tore through it in 24 hours, sleeping for about six hours when I fell asleep with the book still in my lap. I mourned the end, but it wasn’t for me. Not yet. I still had the final movies to look forward to.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 came out the July before my senior year of high school. I was five months shy of 18 when I returned from a European trip and finally got to see it in August of 2011. Ten months prior at the local movie theatre’s premiere of the Deathly Hallows Part 1 I found myself in the company of Megan’s birthday party from 9 years prior. We all sat together, and watched as the final battle between good and evil really began.
My parents and sister were the only people with me when I watched the final movie. I didn’t cry, as I had with the book. I thought I would be a mess, but as I watched the characters I considered family sustain injuries and die, I didn’t cry. I’m not sure if I was numb to it or if I was in a state of denial. I watched as the Elder Wand was destroyed and Harry and his friends turned back to a wounded Hogwarts.
The screen faded to black, and the words “19 Years Later” appeared, and in that moment the tears came. I didn’t have a tissue so I cried into the sleeve of my sweatshirt as Harry reassured Albus Severus that he would succeed at Hogwarts whether he was a Slytherin or a Gryffindor. The tears didn’t want to stop, and as the credits rolled and the lights came back on my little sister leaned over and nudged me.
“What are you crying over?”
Looking back now there were so many reasons. The End of my Innocence. The loss of my steadfast friends. The fact that I would be preparing to go to college a year later. The end of my childhood. The end of the magic I so strongly believed in.
I tried to stem the tears, but instead I started to laugh. I felt ridiculous.
“It’s over…it’s all over.”
But it wasn’t. Last summer I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and got so lost in the movie, I forgot I was watching it. I devoured The Cursed Child and cried at the end of it, except this time I realized something. I had something even better than a time-turner…I still had my Harry Potter books. My friends would never leave me, because I could visit them any time. And every time I visit I’ll still have that connection with it. I’ll still remember which passages comforted me during my first heartbreak, or fight with a best friend. I’ll still remember the adventures I imagined. I’ll still be able to find advice, because I can always go back.
The thing about Harry Potter that really made it special wasn’t the magic. It was the fact that someone who was chosen to save the world, the smartest witch of her generation, and a brave, hand-me-down wearing redhead not only had magic, but went through the same struggles any Muggle kid did. They had their hearts broken, fell in love, and had to learn how to be their own people. I think that’s what Harry is doing most of the series. He’s always had this role as “The Boy Who Lived” and while he tries to grow and fulfill that role, he also tries to determine who he is as an individual. Who he would be if he wasn’t “The Boy Who Lived.”
I laughed and cried with my friends from Harry Potter. I fell in love with them. I felt jealous that they lived in this perfect magical world. Except the point was it wasn’t perfect. Far from it. They had magic, but there was evil in their world, just like in my world, and on top of all that, they had to go through the normal growing pains any kid does. They had to learn how to navigate life just as much as anyone of us in the ‘real’ world.
I’m 24 now. I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I bought The Cursed Child (my 8th first edition Harry Potter book) and read it in two days. But while I’m a different person than I was at 18, I’m still trying to navigate through my life. I work at a job that’s rewarding, but it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve never seriously dated anyone. There are days when I feel completely and utterly alone and the world seems too impossible to conquer. Yes, I am 24. Seven years older than Harry and his friends when they won the Battle of Hogwarts and changed the world for the better. What have I done compared to that?
Well, the answer is I fought there alongside them. And I’ve travelled back to the early 1800s and fallen in love with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Tilney. I’ve fought against the Nazis in World War II. And I’ve gone back to New York City in the 1920s and helped Newt Scamander catch fantastic beasts.
Harry Potter will always remain a part of my life because it taught me that even on my darkest days I can always escape into a book. Real-life isn’t perfect, but neither was Harry Potter’s life. We and our fictional friends face different dangers every day. We battle our own inner demons and try to help those around us fight their own whether they are jealousy or drugs, alcohol or vanity. Harry Potter helped me grow up because it taught me that having an imagination is perhaps the most important thing we can keep from our childhood because it provides us with an escape.
And I know when I feel most helpless and overwhelmed, all I need to turn on the light in my life is to open the cover, fall back in between the ink and my friends will be waiting for me. Ready to teach me something new. Ready to show me that I too am special. That magic can and does exist. All you need to do is open a book, and let your imagination fly away.