Written by Sophie Smyke
Edited by Parth Chhabra
Art by Diane Kim
I’ve never read or watched Harry Potter, and I have no plans to change that. This “fun fact” was one of the first things my first-year roommates learned about me—the topic came up even before we unpacked our suitcases on the first day of the New Student Orientation Program. And although they’ve graciously come to accept my inability to pick up on Harry Potter references, that moment of misconnection felt especially significant. I felt an unjustified guilt for having no relationship to the series.
I remember the first few weeks of my first year, when friendships were still in their early stages, conversations were particularly ripe with references. Even after NSOP, Harry Potter has come up much more often in college than I’d expected, among peers and occasionally even in class.
One of my roommates is what you might call the quintessential Harry Potter fan of our generation. I met her during NSOP and within a few hours, while strolling through campus, she mentioned that being in Butler reminded her of Hogwarts. I had to break the news to her—I couldn’t relate to that feeling. In the past year we’ve had more than a few discussions about what Harry Potter means to her and many others. She fell in love with the series at six when her parents began reading the books to her and then transitioned to reading them on her own when she was older. She remembers how reading the series made everything else around her seem magical, too.
Just last week, I was with a group of new friends when one of them stumbled across an online Harry Potter trivia site. It was late—we had been watching TV for an hour, and the mood was quickly dying. The trivia was a way to liven things up again, and for the three people I was with, a time to bond over their relationships to the Harry Potter series. They crowded around the computer in the dimly lit dormroom in search of a quiz to begin with.
When I admitted my inability to participate in the activity, I got the reaction I’ve come to expect. It went something like: “Oh no! Did your parents not let you read the books when you were a kid?” As if that being true would at least rid me of some of the “I’ve never read Harry Potter” guilt.
Alas—my parents are not to blame. My mom owns all the books and tried so hard to read them to me when I was a child. I imagine she had dreamed of me begging to read one more chapter before bed or skipping around the house reciting spells. Instead, she had a grumpy five-year-old who fell asleep on her shoulder two paragraphs into the first chapter. Losing hope, she offered to watch the movies with me instead. Unlucky again: I was (and still am) consistently uninterested. But then, my brother came along and filled the wand (?) sized hole in her heart, enthusiastically reading the books faster than I could refuse them.
I did live up to my mom’s expectations when it came to Star Wars—another one of those pop cultural phenomena that has come up more often at Columbia than I expected. I watched Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope for the first time with my mom on a snowy day in second grade. As I worked through the rest of the series with her, I became more and more devoted to the characters and the worlds that I saw on the screen.
Early on in my first year, I bonded with a roommate over our excitement for The Last Jedi, which was set to come out that December. As a new student, surrounded by people I didn’t know, there was something comforting about knowing that she, too, had snuggled up on snow days with her family to watch the movie—to watch Luke, Leia, and Han—just as I had. Our friendship wasn’t founded in spaceships and wookiees, but it is founded in a common childhood experience.
I understand why these cultural phenomena come up a lot. If not Harry Potter or Star Wars, then I imagine we all have a book, TV series, or movie that, as children, helped form our image of the world. It’s the “finding magic wherever you look” that stands out to me when I ask people about their relationship to Harry Potter. Starting a new chapter in your life, one that is decidedly more grown-up than the past one, brings out a certain urgency to not let childhood disappear. Whichever cultural phenomenon we form a relationship with as children inevitably finds its way into our Columbia lives.