“You must be a first year,” he asked the girl sitting across from me. Her brown bangs framed her eyes as she looked up at him, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother chuckled in the seat beside her. “And you two must be fourth or fifth years?” he continued, miming in the direction of my sister and I. I blushed at the thought of this man implying we were around 15 years old, the same age as my actual students. But I let him indulge.
“We are alumni, friends of Dumbledore.” And for a moment, I could see it—his hands perched on the head of his cane as he motioned towards his wife who sat wedged into the corner seat beside him. She nodded in affirmation, giggling at her husband’s show. I was on the train to Hogwarts at Universal Studios, a mecca for Harry Potter nerds like myself who never grew tired of the magic, the story, the wonder.
This was the first time that I truly gave into the commercialism of my favorite book. I had grown up alongside Harry; I was the same age as him when the series began and each new release marked my own maturation as well. Yet I was a selfish reader. I wanted the world between the book covers for myself. While some children indulged in sharing books with their friends, I loved the escapism of reading. Books made me feel special, unique, like somehow the author’s imagination was for me alone. I so desperately loved these worlds that I had come to indulge in that I refused to believe others could feel or even revel in the same universe I had come to know and appreciate.
As I entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I let go of the resentment and anger I had as a child—the feeling that somehow the world of magic had been poisoned. For the first time, the books my mind had lived in came alive around me. Throngs of readers surrounded me as I walked the streets of Diagon Alley, weaving my way through shops I had only dreamt of as a child. Flowing black robes enveloped children waving their wands and watching scenes awaken before their eyes as parents looked on sipping foamy pints of butterbeer. A stone dragon teetered atop Gringott’s bank, breathing fire towards patrons below.
Had I known when I was eleven that I would become an English teacher who presses students for their thoughts and opinions on what they’re reading, I would have to sought to share my relationship with books instead of internalizing it. Sitting on the Hogwarts Express that day with four generations of readers proved the unifying power of literature as I chatted with complete strangers from across the country about the intricacies of the series. We had each discovered these stories at different times in our lives and we had each read ourselves into the books, deriving different meanings from our separate readings.
I see this power every day in the turnover of my classroom library and the popularity of certain books. While the stories stay the same from year to year, my students do not. They ride the climaxes and lulls of common stories as groups, suggesting certain books to each other based on their own personal experiences. They laugh aloud in the middle of reading time and they cry quietly curled around their books in their bedrooms. They engage in the terror of The Maze Runner series then quietly lend the books to their friends only to excitedly discuss their individual experiences during down time. Books elicit reactions; they cause people to feel, and because of that, students pass on their suggestions to friends. The transformative power of common stories never ceases to amaze me—how such books can help define the path of one individual or bring together multiple. I spent years of my childhood believing that sharing my passion somehow devalued it, but I have learned that the uniqueness of reading lies in the fact that no two people ever read the same book. In the end, we can hold our individual experiences close, while still sharing the magic of common worlds.