On the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter

A quick summary of the Harry Potter thoughts I had today before I get into the thing:

1. “Twenty years? Gosh, I’m old.”

2. “Aww, what a nice tweet from J.K. Rowling.”

3. “Oh, so that’s why Freeform did a movie marathon this weekend.”

4. “Wait, what’s my contribution to this going to be? I don’t own any of the books anymore, so I can’t post a cute, nostalgic Instagram photo or anything.”

5. “Oh, right, words.”

NOTE: Spoilers below. You can never be too careful, I reckon, even today.

Photo via Amazon

My mom must have started buying the books for me in 1998 (they didn’t start synching UK/US release dates until Goblet of Fire – doesn’t it seem unfathomable now that books 1 and 2 were out in the UK before Sorcerer’s Stone came out here?), because I remember having them in the house very early on. In fourth grade, we took photos sometime in the first month of school as part of a “get to know your classmates” assignment, and in mine, I’m beaming with my copy of the newly-released Prisoner of Azkaban.

But here’s the thing: I don’t remember actually reading a Harry Potter book until early in high school. My sole memory of interacting with the books, aside from presumably touching them every once in a while on my bookshelf, was when my sister was assigned a book report in third grade (to keep up with dates, this would have been 2001 or 2002) that had to be about a mystery. She chose Chamber of Secrets, and sometimes, my mom would read it to us as a bedtime story. I remember the story being immensely engaging, but I never actually read it for myself until later.

Actually, you know, that last part probably isn’t true. I definitely did read the books in the way I’d always read books growing up – lots of skimming, and not a lot of comprehension. So I’d read the previous Harry Potter books when a new one came out, but I hadn’t really read them – I’d absorbed the words and maybe formed a few of the scenes, out of order, in my head. I remember being outraged when the Sorcerer’s Stone movie omitted the Potions scene at the end, but until later, I couldn’t have told you any of the other differences between the books and the movies.

(The “my reading comprehension is terrible” thing is a whole other story that extends from being assigned books way beyond my skill level just because I could read in first grade, to having my lowest SAT score come in critical reading. I won’t go into it further here, but JSYK.)

And then there was a winter break, or spring break – some non-summer break from school between 2003 and 2005 – where I decided to sit down and try to get through what would be the longest book of the series, and the newest at the time, Order of the Phoenix. My dad’s coworker had read it upon release, and the message that my dad (who’s never read the books) relayed to me was a simple, “Things are getting darker for Harry.” I remember buying it at an airport and, as a result of the previous summary, being too intimidated to start reading until I got home. As I read, I found that as engaged as I was with the story, there was still so much I didn’t understand because of my casual attitude toward the previous books. Wasn’t Sirius Black a bad guy? Why was the Ministry so anti-Harry? And what was that special spell Harry used that got him in so much trouble? (That last one despite having seen Prisoner of Azkaban in theaters. Sigh.)

So using whatever break time I had left, I dove into the previous four books. I learned about and connected to the characters, memorized the spells (even making a Word doc of all of them), and vowed to figure out a way to play Quidditch someday. Harry Potter became the deepest damn books I’d ever read, and probably the first book series I ever became attached to, aside from Little House on the Prairie or Narnia (which I was told to read in first grade and so diligently skimmed, so…you get the idea).

I didn’t go to the Half-Blood Prince book release party in town because I was sleeping over at a friend’s house, but when I got home the next day, my sister – who’d already read it by staying up all night – insisted I had to read it immediately. She even used a Post-It to cover up the chapter photo for “Flight of the Prince” (it’s of Snape) so I wouldn’t inadvertently be spoiled before the big reveal.

Then, in 2007 – a super goddamn Harry Potter summer, with the Order of the Phoenix movie and the final book both coming out in July – I attended my first and only release party for Deathly Hallows. My sister and I, of similar enthusiasm, each bought our own copy so we wouldn’t have to decide who would read it first (though, uh, she stopped reading about 100 pages in and, to my knowledge, never finished. No matter). I stayed up until 4 a.m. to read the first 70% or so, all the while texting the friend I went to the release with for his play-by-play, and then woke up just a few hours later to devour the rest. We had family in town that day from the East Coast who were anything but Harry Potter fans, so I again resorted to texting everyone I could to get their thoughts on the book.

It didn’t sink in until a few days later that the series was over. But really, I was so satisfied by how Deathly Hallows ended that I didn’t care to the extent that many I knew did. (Also, probably, the rumors of a Harry Potter encyclopedia at the time kept me hopeful that there would be more. Sigh.) And as time passed, I managed to get my Harry Potter fix in some way, whether it was rewatching a movie or two one weekend, rereading a book, taking dozens of themed Sporcle quizzes, riding the Pottermore hype before it got comically boring, or reading Mark Oshiro’s “Mark Reads Harry Potter” series as he read the books for the first time (how he managed to stay completely unspoiled until 2011, I will never, ever know and I will forever be amazed).

As only the cheesiest people say – and me, happily – the magic never really ended. I am incredibly grateful to J.K. Rowling for sharing this world with us, and between that and the previous sentence, there’s not much more I need to add to this beautiful, rambling thing.

How I used “Lord of the Rings” to get into college

Did you know that your SAT essays are right there, scanned and posted on the College Board website, just waiting for people who graduated high school years ago to log in and relive the best 25 minutes of their lives?

I sure did!

In honor of the new SAT expanding the length of the now-optional essay section to 50 minutes in order to accommodate a longer prompt, I thought I’d share these excerpts from my two 2007 SAT essays. I believe they conclusively prove my demonstrated Lord of the Rings obsession trumped my GPA, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars in helping me get into college.

Also, I don’t think context is necessary, do you?


March 2007 (with bonus Harry Potter):

“Literature has shown countless times that one should not set smaller goals if one will be displeased with the results. One should try to achieve a goal with an optimistic outlook, like Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series. Both characters exemplified their drive to achieve their respective goals. Sam was able to think about destroying the One Ring throughout the journey, and his optimism led Frodo to ultimately destroy the Ring. Harry Potter kept the destruction of Voldemort in sight as he, almost subconsciously, achieved smaller goals while keeping the largest one in his mind. Optimism is key in achieving large goals, whether one’s imagination permits it or not.”

October 2007 (with bonus Beowulf):

“If one researches some of the most recently recognized films, one will discover that history plays a large role in crafting these epic tales. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is a prime example. Not only is it based on a book, but a myriad of the costumes and battle items forged for the battle sequences were based on Anglo-Saxon and Norman mail and swords. Director Peter Jackson knew that he had the task of creating Middle-earth for the very first time, but instead of treating his viewers to novel costumes, he told the employees at Weta Workshop to research the 12th and 13th century’s clothing and mail and design the costumes for ‘Lord of the Rings’ based on those pictures and descriptions. Although perfected, Jackson’s attempt at creating an original view of Middle-earth failed as he chose to mirror the Anglo-Saxon battlewear. However, one cannot assume that Jackson duplicated every aspect of the Anglo-Saxons; J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the novels, borrowed material heavily from Beowulf. The monster Grendel, for example, is an almost exact manifestation of Tolkien’s character Gollum. Shunned by his family, Gollum delves into the mist and becomes an unfathomable representation of a human gone mad.”


Now that I think about it, these read so much like posts on Shit My Students Write and lol my thesis that I’m surprised I didn’t get zeros on each of these essays. At least it wasn’t as bad as what I wrote/pictures I drew on my AP Biology exam, I suppose (purposeful vagueness and/or harkening to inside joke lost to time entirely intended).