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In Honour of September 1st: School Friends [Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling]

September 1, 2010

Today is the beginning of meterological Autumn (and the weather and the plants are behaving very appropriately), but much more that that, to me, September 1st means start of term at Hogwarts.

It’s been nearly a decade since I first read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ – not entirely voluntarily, but determinedly making my way through my first real English book.

I read it just a few months before switching schools, just before going to grammar school, which was Hogwarts to me in many ways – with its old, large and confusing building, its wonderfully weird teachers, and because I was finally free of the teasing and bullying of the previous years.

I didn’t make friends there, always an outsider, always quiet. For a while , I hardly talked at all, and then when I talked, most of the conversations I remember were about Harry Potter. I may not have had friends, but having this one thing in common, with a few people at least – to whisper about during class, to argue and laugh about during break – gave me the sense of belonging that colours my memories of my grammar school years.

What did I see in this book when I first read it? What was it that made me love it despite all the prejudices I had? It was popular, and popular things, I had decided, were rubbish.1 It was childish, I believed, and I would not read silly children’s books any more.2 It had magic in it, and magic was stupid – I wanted to read realistic books.3

One of the things I learned from Harry Potter was what I only found out years later was called ‘suspense of disbelief’ – to accept that within the world of the book, magic was real, and to judge the events in it by that world’s rules and not our own.

But what, what made me love it so much? Was it the grand adventure the characters were having, and the fact that it was the children who saved the day, as it should be? (Because for all that I at first refused to read, then refused to admit I’d liked the book, I was still very much a child.) Was it the intricate and colourful world? The characters, coming alive on the page and who I recognized again in real people?4 Was it the puns and jokes, teaching me that English was a language to be used and played with as much as my native German, not just a school subject like Maths or Geography? Was it Dumbledore, with those lines that seemed wise to me then (and in part, still do now)?

I’ll probably never know. Rereading ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ now, with several years having passed since the last time I read it, it seems a simple enough book. Even the language seems simple – not as exaggeratedly simple as the school textbooks I was used to ten years ago, but still simpler than what I read now. (Or maybe it only seems that way because the words are so familiar, familiar like a nursery rhyme, read over and over and over again?)

The story, too, seems simple and clear now, full of classic elements like the orphaned hero. (Why, buy the way, are children so fond of orphans? It’s not just the books – and children’s literature is full of orphans, half-orphans and as-good-as-orphans – but also my own games of make-believe, which rarely, if ever, involved parents.)

A simple, clear adventure story, like the junior detective books I’d devoured by the dozen – following the clues, getting into trouble, defeating the villain. No sub-plots to speak of, in this first book.

The characters, too, don’t seem so amazingly well-written any more after ten years, hundreds of books, and quite a few stories of my own. When I first read ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, what impressed me was that each of those characters had a distinct personality – many of the books I’d read before were lacking in that department, with the characters remaining rather interchangeble. But looking at them now, after all the books I’ve read since and after struggling with characterisation in my own stories, I realize J.K. Rowling isn’t exactly subtle about it – many of the characters now seem more like caricatures of their dominant traits than like actual people.

And yet, I can’t love them any the less for it. Caricatures or no, they’re still my old and faithful friends that I can count on to cheer me up, to comfort me, to make me laugh. When I’m sad or scared, this is the book I’ll reach for, to be calmed by the familiar words and the memories of simpler times.

I think it was in Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ that I read a quote about how books keep an earlier version of our self, the self that first read the book, alive inside them. I read that first ‘Harry Potter’ book with the innocence of childhood, and it was this childhood self, to whom the world was simple still, that came alive again for each new book in the series, and for every reread. This childhood self, to whom there was a simple right and wrong, to whom some people were jerks who could be hated, and some people were friends, to stick together through thick and thin. Friendship was what mattered, both in my life and in the book, bravery, friendship and love – love for family and friends, not that other kind that was just becoming an issue among my age-mates.

And returning to the Wizarding World, no matter what has gone on in my life, things are that simple again for a while. It’s probably my most-often-read book. Dog-eared and ink-stained, yellowed, smudged and wavy from getting damp, it looks it, too. It’s gone to university with me and to boarding school, to the Netherlands on my first trip, and probably other places I can’t remember. Wherever I expected to feel lonely, sad, or scared – when I couldn’t bring a friend to keep me company, I brought those ink-and-paper friends. And I have every intention of keeping up that friendship – it’ll be good to be reminded, every now and then, what truly matters in life.

My battered old copy, held together by plenty of sticky tape. I wish it didn’t have such an ugly cover, but otherwise I love this book dearly.

Nearly a decade, and so much has changed in my life. But one thing has stayed the same, and what better day than today to honour her, too – my wonderful, incomparable best friend.

It’s just a few days short of 17 years that we’ve known each other, having met in our first year of school. Like Harry and Ron, who just happened to end up in the same compartment, we were probably friends by circumstance first – the two weirdos, one rowdy, one quiet, but both full of stories, full of imagination, being grouped together because we didn’t fit in anywhere else.

Seventeen years, and who can say where companionship by circumstance ended and friendship began? Seventeen years, and who can even say where I ended and she began? We’ve grown together, so long, so close, that to imagine what I’d be without her, what she’d be without me is just not possible. Eight years of school together, sitting next to each other in class, during break, sharing lunch, sharing thoughts, sharing stories, secrets, beliefs. Helping the thoughts grow, together. Nine years since we parted ways, one to work, one on to school, and yet together whenever we could.

There have been some difficult times, I can’t deny that, when we threatened to drift apart. But always, we’ve reached out again, because what we had is too valuable to let it slip away. Always forgiven, and gone on together. Forever, we hope. I’ve got no intention of letting anything – moving, jobs, boyfriends, Dark Lords – drive us apart.

1 How much of that was just ‘sour grapes’ because I was pretty much a social outcast and had no friends who would have introduced me to the ‘popular’ things, I don’t know. But I don’t think I ever really wanted to smoke behind the supermarket, spend hours in clothes and shoe stores and drooling over… who was that? … the Backstreet Boys? Leonardo DiCaprio?
2 Nevermind that at that time, I still had three families of stuffed toys living in my wardrobe, and a doll family in the desk drawers.
3 Nevermind that my favourite book at the time was full of talking animals.
4I think it only took me one lesson with my Biology professor at grammar school to decide she was Professor McGonagall. And not just in personality, either, but even in looks. It got even weirder when I saw the movie, and Maggie Smith, who played Professor McGonagall, looked like my teacher, too.


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