My younger daughter and I spent the summer of 2001 planning her 11th birthday party. She was deeply engrossed in Harry Potter at the time, and it was a year of Potter drought, with no new novel at all and the first film not due to reach theatres until November.
So we created our own Harry Potter adventure, with the family home substituting for an ancient castle. We used an Olde English typeface to create letters inviting 19 friends to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – Westchester Campus – and we bicycled around town to drop the letters through mail slots. Not all parents were aware of Harry Potter lore back then, and a few were alarmed when they found envelopes addressed to their pre-teens at “the bedroom at the top of the stairs” and such. But the kids got it.
Preparations moved into high gear when my daughter returned from summer camp. Our basement became Diagon Alley. Adhesive stars were affixed to the ceiling in our family room, where a fireplace could create the proper ambiance for the Great Hall. We made a Sorting Hat and filled it with slips of paper containing witty poems that my daughter wrote to assign the partiers among four houses. Using interior latex paint, which lasted until the following spring, I created a terrestrial quidditch pitch on our front lawn. We prepared a special edition of the Daily Prophet, whose headlines contained the first clues to the mystery our guests would compete to solve.
And then, four days before the party, two towers crashed to earth in plain view of our town, beneath a brilliant blue sky.
Thousands of children in metropolitan New York and elsewhere lost parents that day, and many more were traumatized by witnessing the loss suffered by schoolmates and others that they knew. In that sense, our Westchester village was fortunate. Most commuters in our town work in midtown Manhattan, rather than in the financial district. None of the kids in our schools lost immediate family members on that terrible Tuesday. My daughter and her fellow sixth-graders were old enough to know, intellectually, what had happened, but they were not old enough to feel the full emotional impact without having a personal connection to the event. Geography and luck spared them the worst of the potential shock.
I must have at least considered cancelling the party. Certainly none of the adults around me felt much like celebrating. But I don’t remember actually wanting at any point to call off the festivities. What for? My presence was not required on “the pile,” where rescue efforts quickly turned to recovery. Besides, looking after 20 youngsters would free their parents to do whatever they needed to do that Saturday. There was no point in disappointing my daughter and so many others. Besides, if anyone objected to a party that day, they would just stay away.
Nobody did. The Saturday of Sept. 15, 2001, dawned bright, clear and cool in Westchester, much like the preceding Tuesday had. By 3 p.m. all the partiers had arrived and all the other adults had departed. It was just the kids and me, plus my 15-year-old daughter and two other teenagers. I hired them for the day to be Hogwarts faculty, house-elves, dementors and other requisite characters.
I played multiple roles. In the basement, as Mr. Ollivander, I dispensed magic wands with the intonation that “the wand chooses the wizard, you know.” Upstairs, I was Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, one of history’s great wizards and, of course, the best headmaster Hogwarts ever knew. Thanks to me, Dumbledore was seen in public wearing a green bathrobe over jeans and tennis shoes. His reputation somehow survived.
We conducted wizarding duels and quidditch matches. With the house-elves’ help, I prepared multiple roasts and ears of corn and served them in the Great Hall before a roaring fire, on a night just cool enough to make the fire pleasant. Professor Sybill Trelawney consulted a crystal ball and, in a vision, provided the clue that helped locate the magical token that had mysteriously disappeared. Dementors and other evil-doers were duly dispatched and, as the parents arrived at around 8 p.m. to pick up their kids, the House Cup was awarded – to Gryffindor, of course.
It all seemed to be just a good time, one that everyone really needed after the events of that tragic week. As I look back on it, though, I wonder if that party did more than just provide a break from the sadness.
Sept. 11 brought all of us face to face with evil. For those 11-year-olds, but also for many of us parents, it was the first time such pure hatred and cruelty had ever intruded on our idyllic suburban world. We needed to grieve and to adjust. Perhaps part of the adjustment was to reassure ourselves that while evil can never be rooted out entirely, it can be confronted and defeated. That is what our nation has done for the past decade, and what it continues to do.
Every one of the kids who attended the party went to college, many to very rigorous schools, and most will graduate this year. They will enter adult life well-prepared and confident, educated but not debilitated by the events that touched their childhood. There are thousands like them, and thousands more who have volunteered to fight directly against terrorism and tyranny. Any Harry Potter fan understands that such battles are lengthy, that victories may be scarce and fleeting, and that good people will become casualties in the struggle.
We confronted fear and vanquished evil that Saturday after 9/11, if only in a party game. At a moment when we really needed some magic, we found some, and the charm still works today.
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