20 years with ‘Harry Potter’

J.K. Rowling’s world was always waiting for me, even though I left it for a while


On a Christmas Eve nearly two decades ago, my Aunt Sheila gave me what would become one of the most significant gifts of my life: two neatly wrapped books. They were part of a new children’s series that had become massively popular across the globe, she explained, about a boy who found out he was a wizard and was learning to maneuver the magical world. They were excellent, she told me, a very young and wide-eyed avid reader who would read anything my beloved aunt gave me.

I dove in.

The years to follow were spent between J.K. Rowling’s pages, sneaking late-night reading sessions with a flashlight under sheets emblazoned with golden snitches, beneath curtains covered in stars and broomsticks, whispering prayers that this world I’d buried myself in was real. I frantically hoped that somehow this woman halfway across the globe had stumbled across a world so drastically different than my own. A world where it was OK if you came from a broken family, or if you were an adolescent know-it-all, because there was magic. I cried alone in my room on my 11th birthday when my Hogwarts letter never came.

My dad took me to Walmart at midnight when new books were released. It was the only place in Bastrop that sold books, and I remember yawning in my pajamas on those summer nights, the joy I felt the moment the book touched my hands. I went home and read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then I woke up and read some more until I was done.

I didn’t think it was “nerdy” to love “Harry Potter” in elementary school. The world was at the height of Pottermania in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and even the popular kids in my class had read the books. Everyone in my small private school knew I always had my nose in a book, and nobody made fun of me. But I also knew that I was probably the only kid who had “Harry Potter” bedsheets and logged onto the internet to read fan fiction, so I kept those parts to myself. They were for me, after all. This world was mine.

My private school went only to sixth grade, so when I was 12 years old, my dad and I made the decision to enroll me in public school. On the first day of my seventh-grade science class, the teacher asked us to each stand up and tell the class our name and one interesting fact.

“I’m Katey,” I said, pushing up my glasses for effect. “And I’ve read every ‘Harry Potter’ book at least six times.” (You guys, I was such a Hermione.)

The class tittered, and I glanced around. What was so funny? I sat down, embarrassed. That was the beginning.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Facebook gets magical to commemorate Potter anniversary

I made friends anyway. At first it was with the off-beat crowd, but as I began to lose my baby weight and ditched my glasses for contacts, I started getting invited to parties and sleepovers. I was in. This was the version of Katey they liked, so it was the version I spent the next six years of school developing. I kept reading, but quietly. I didn’t talk about it. I slowly went through book by book in my school library until I had read almost every one. I silently made good grades, until I realized it wasn’t “cool” to be smart, so I stopped studying.

My dad still took me to Walmart at midnight to get the new “Potter” books. My Aunt Sheila took me and my cousins, the kids who hadn’t even been born yet when she first gifted me the books, to midnight premieres of the “Harry Potter” movies that were now being released. I got goosebumps every time “Hedwig’s Theme” played or when I saw the Warner Bros. logo on the screen. But I was a teenage girl with a boyfriend, who went to parties and had friends whose parents let us drink the liquor in their cabinets. It was no longer cool to like “Harry Potter.” It was a dirty secret from a past life.

When the final book came out in 2007, I stayed up until 6 a.m. finishing it. Then I slept until noon, woke up and read it again, and wept. The “Harry Potter” books ending meant my childhood had come to an end. I could no longer be the little bespectacled girl who pretended a stick from her backyard was a wand. It was time to be a woman. I left Harry behind.

When I started college at the University of Texas in 2010, I had a roommate whose laptop background was the Deathly Hallows. I asked her what it was and she looked at me incredulously, amazed that I didn’t know. Our neighbors down the hall were big Potterheads, too. We ended up going to see the first “Deathly Hallows” movie together, and I remember thinking to myself, “Where were these people when I was growing up?”

I bought a shirt with the Deathly Hallows logo on it at Hot Topic. I wore it on a solo road trip to Dallas in July 2011 to watch the final movie with my friend Jennifer, one of the girls who’d lived down the hall from me. It was right after I’d broken up with my high school sweetheart, and seeing this movie with this friend was the only thing that felt right that whole summer.

And then life happened. I grew up. I dated a guy who cared way too much about what other people thought of him, so I began to care too much what other people thought of me. We broke up when I graduated college. Then Aunt Sheila called me and asked if I wanted to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I didn’t hesitate for a second. We booked the trip.

One day that summer, before the epic road trip to Orlando, I found myself drinking Mexican martinis at the Trudy’s near campus with a college friend. He wanted to get tattoos. I thought about it for roughly two seconds and decided I’d get the Deathly Hallows. And then there it was, permanently on my body, just in time.

You know by now how truly amazing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios is, so I won’t regale you with stories of how I cried when I walked through the brick entrance to Diagon Alley or how my hands shook when I was chosen to get a wand from Mr. Ollivander himself. But I will tell you the ways that vacation saved me.

I walked around that park, holding a mug of butterbeer and carrying my freshly purchased wand without shame. I grinned at people of all ages wearing Gryffindor or Slytherin robes (in the August heat in Florida) and laughed as I tried honest-to-goodness Fizzing Whizbees that crackled in my mouth and Chocolate Frogs that I thought might just take flight out of my hands. I was surrounded by so many total nerds that I was reminded of how wonderful community is, and how wonderful the Potter fandom is.

And I decided that maybe being a nerd isn’t so bad, and maybe there is something really, really cool about loving something so incredibly much that you feel this innate, irresistible need to tell the world about how much you love it. How it was one of your only friends when you were a nerdy, overweight, shy girl living in the country with your dad. How it taught you about love and friendship and acceptance. How it took you to another world when sometimes this one was too much to bear. And how it still does all of those things for you, even 20 years later. Even as you sit at your desk at your job as a writer with a reminder of the reason you wanted to write in the first place permanently tattooed on the back of your neck. After all this time. Always.

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