I have been an enormous “Harry Potter” fan since elementary school. And I mean enormous. I talked about it in my Common App essay and was teased about it relentlessly in middle school, with creative jeers like “Gillian jerks off to ‘Harry Potter!’” So when my mom suggested a spring break trip with her and my sister to Universal Studios, where I could at long last see Hogwarts and Diagon Alley with my own magic-hungry eyes, I was thrilled. It was perfect timing, too—I had just finished listening to an extremely in-depth “Potter” podcast that analyzed every chapter of all the books. Afterward, we would head to St. Augustine and stay at a bed and breakfast to unwind and relax after the craziness of a theme park.
Universal was everything a mere Muggle could dream of. Ollivanders and Honeydukes were extremely realistic and committed to creating an atmosphere of magic (albeit one that still allowed the cash—sorry, “galleons”—to roll in). I was amazed by the attention to detail and the commitment to making sure Potter fans of any age would enjoy the parks. I felt like I was really flying through the Quidditch pitch as a 4-D experience ride flung me through the air, and a hearty meal at the Leaky Cauldron felt even more authentic with so many fans walking around in their house robes (I, of course, donned my Slytherin Quidditch t-shirt).
When we planned the trip, we did so with the expectation that Universal Studios would be extremely crowded, given that we would be visiting smack in the middle of spring break. But when we arrived, it was clear that something was amiss. Attractions still had meandering lines and the park was far from a ghost town, but with our Express passes, we never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a ride. This was abnormal, and we knew it was related to the outbreak of COVID-19.
My family and I spent two full days at the parks. The first day, we didn’t think much about the virus, other than keeping in mind that we shouldn’t touch anything unnecessary, should wash our hands with frequency and should avoid touching our faces—the standard guidelines we had seen all over social media and the news. We discussed our favorite rides and attractions, not social distancing and flattening the curve. COVID-19 felt like a serious problem, but not something that would upend our lives. To paraphrase another high fantasy series: Oh, one-week-ago-Gillian, you sweet summer child.
The first day zipped by at the speed of a golden snitch. The next day felt like a month. Mid-morning, I read that Harvard and other Boston area schools had decided to move classes online for the rest of the semester. The list of schools who made the same or similar calls grew quickly, and suddenly that far-off problem became my life. My group chats from both my hometown and from Vassar exploded with questions, fears, soon-to-be-quashed hopes. There were emails, speculations, a petition and the craziest Twitter feed I’d ever seen.
As an influx of information poured into my phone, I was hit with an acute hyper-awareness of everything around me. How many people surrounded me, and how we all touched the same things without a second thought. The little boy that stood in line in front of me with his hands in his mouth yesterday was just gross and cringe worthy. Today, he was a public health threat. Hogwarts didn’t seem like a castle of magic so much as a petri dish.
I was glad to be leaving the overcrowded cesspool and head to the coastal city of St. Augustine. The bed and breakfast was adorable, the town was quaint and charming, the beaches were broad, windy and near empty. I found it hard to picture crowded hospitals and quarantined cruise ships in such a peaceful place. It felt like being in the eye of the hurricane, and I waited anxiously for the calm to subside and the waves to take over. I soon learned that I would not be returning to Vassar—classes would be online.
I was itching to return home. The number of people wearing masks in the airport had increased greatly since our flight from Chicago to Orlando, and I urged myself to sleep on the plane as a way to keep my hands off my face and any other surface.
When we finally made it home, I felt exhausted, perhaps because I kept expecting to wake up from a bad dream. How could I not be returning to Vassar with my friends? How could I “go to the source” under “remote learning”? What about the concert my choir has been preparing for months? My field trips? The seniors and their last months of college? The long, humid afternoons in May sprawling on the quad after a couple hours in the library? Everything I thought was a “what about…?” It all felt surreal, and it still does.
There isn’t really a so-what factor for me to put at the end of this piece. The magic of Hogwarts or friendship did not make anything better. Sure, it was a distraction, but here I sit at home, when less than a week ago I was still planning to be with Vassar friends right now.
The only way I feel I can successfully tie this piece together is with a quote from none other than Albus Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” We may feel helpless and powerless, discouraged and cheated. But the power of choice and its exponential impact are not to be forgotten in this time. Let us all make Professor Dumbledore proud so eventually, we can return to our regular lives, hold those we love close, and know that in that moment, all is well.