Monday, 7 April 2008

He's dot alone! He's still god be! STUBEFY! STUBEFY! STUBEFY!

[Caution! Cuidado! Mind Your Head! Harry Potter Spoilers Below.]

heather "I like it because it's ugly," Neville Longbottom says as he shows me a wilted plant from the collection in his office. "I know it doesn't look like much now, but if you're patient and gentle, it will astonish you with color when it opens up." Every surface in Professor Longbottom's office is covered with plants. Some are traditionally beautiful, and some are downright menacing. The one he is holding up to me now is, as he says, simply ugly. His office is made almost entirely of windows, except one solid wall behind his desk, which is singularly decorated with artwork from his three-year-old daughter. He tells me the solid wall was once glass, but he learned early on not to turn his back on his students. Almost as confirmation, a loud bang erupts from a corner of the office, sending dozens of plants scurrying back down into their pots. One lone garden gnome jumps from a hanging plant, and shrieks all the way out the door. "Confiscated Dragon’s Tongue Firecrackers," Professor Longbottom says. "I've been waiting for them to disarm for a week now." There is a hint of fondness in his voice as he shakes his head and pinpoints the genesis of the noise: "Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. They're everywhere."

I have been talking to Neville Longbottom for five minutes and already I've seen a rare species of Peruvian Ficus, been attacked by an over-toothed sweet potato, and been rendered temporarily deaf by an explosion of George Weasley's finest munitions. These are the perils—and pleasures, I suppose—of having an office at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

This is only my third time at Britain's most famous magical school, and I am as excited as a House Elf on Dobby Day. I am particularly enthusiastic to be invited to sit down with Professor Neville Longbottom. It was he who partnered with Hermione Granger-Weasley to spearhead the legislation that allowed me to interact with witches and wizards in the first place.

Several years ago—while on holiday in London—I stumbled upon The Leaky Cauldron. I was surprised to find one of America’s most infamous right-wing journalists, Ann Coulter, there; and even more shocked to find that she went by the name Rita Skeeter in Britain. I was able to contribute to The Daily Prophet’s coverage of the Skeeter Conspiracy, and after Skeeter/Coulter’s prosecution and the loss of her Muggle journalist credentials, the Minister of Magic granted me special distinction as a member of the magical community. Over the years, Professor Longbottom has fought hard to help me retain that status. It is because of this kinship, perhaps, that he has granted me the interview.

As I sit down across from him at his desk, Longbottom silently summons two cups of tea. I mention his reluctance up until now to talk to reporters. He takes a long drink before answering. “After the defeat of Tom Riddle all those years ago, reporters were always after me, trying to get to Harry [Potter]. They also falsely reported that Remus Lupin had died. He hadn’t, of course, and the mourning it caused when they falsely reported it! Those reporters were like Dementors, hovering and trying to suck out any possible bit of my unguarded soul. The whole thing just turned me off to interviews altogether.”

Longbottom pauses, and looks thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Gosh, how many years ago was that?” I tell him it has been ten years since the fall of Tom “Voldemort” Riddle, and he seems bewildered by that number. I ask him if it seems shorter or longer. He says that in some ways it seems like yesterday, and in other ways it seems a lifetime ago. This is the conversation that follows:

HH: I don’t mean to demand information from you about The Battle of Hogwarts or your fight against Riddle. I know it must be difficult…
Longbottom: No, it’s okay. I’m not pained by it, and I know you’re not going to try to use me to get to Harry [Potter], or Hermione and Ron [Weasley]. It’s just… I didn’t have that much to do with it.
HH: Didn’t have that much to do with it! It was you who rushed out and slew Riddle’s snake. You destroyed the final barrier between the most evil wizard the world has ever seen and death. Every history book that includes the Battle of Hogwarts will mention your name, forever.
Longbottom: Nah.
HH: I’m serious.
Longbottom: It was Harry who killed Riddle.
HH: You were the leader of Dumbledore’s Army. You’re a hero, Professor Longbottom. Do you really not know that? Are you just being coy?
Longbottom: We teach History of Magic here, and I’m sure I’ve never heard anyone mention my name.

I bet him lunch at The Hog’s Head that I can find his name in at least five places in Bathilda Bagshot’s A History of Magic. We walk to Professor Cuthbert Binns’s classroom to borrow one of his books. I open it to the index and find the following entry:

Neville Longbottom’s awe seems genuine as I count the pages referencing his name. I am at twenty when he pulls a gold coin from his pocket and begins turning it over in his hand. I ask him what it is; he blushes and says it is the coin Hermione Granger-Weasley made for Dumbledore’s Army when he was at Hogwarts. “Nervous habit,” he tells me. I wonder aloud if Bathilda Bagshot should add that anecdote somewhere between pages 260 and 265.

Back in Professor Longbottom’s office I spot the Sorting Hat. I am surprised to find that it is here among all this dirt. Neville assures me that the hat likes it in his office and often bursts out into spontaneous song, or shouts at the pre-pubescent mandrakes to quiet their bickering. He asks me if I’d like to try on the hat. I am caught off guard. “I’m not magical,” I tell him.

“The hat doesn’t care if you’re magical ,” he says. “It sees the desires of your heart. It will Sort you.”

I have, of course, dreamed of being Sorted since I first read Hogwarts: A History, but I am afraid I couldn’t stifle my disappointment if the Hat refused to Sort me. Or, worse yet, what if the Hat Sorts me into a house that causes my friends to heckle me, to call me borderline retarded. I reluctantly decline.

I suppose Longbottom senses this, identifies with it somehow, because he pulls the Hat off the shelf and plops it down on my head. I close my eyes and clench my fists, expecting it to hurt. It does not.

“What’s this?” the Sorting Hat asks in a gruff voice. “September already?”

“Not yet. I just thought you might Sort a friend of mine,” Longbottom says.

The hat lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine,” he says at length. “But only because it’s so obvious. This one’s a Hufflepuff.”

Professor Longbottom plucks the hat from my head, thanks it and sits it back on the shelf. “My wife, Hannah, was a Hufflepuff,” Neville Longbottom tells me with a wide smile. “I myself was almost sorted into that house.”

I withhold from Longbottom the fact that even though it is likely I will never be able to perform magic, I did buy a wand at Ollivander’s on my first trip to Diagon Alley. I ask him of what accomplishment he is proudest. Was it his large part in the destruction of Tom Riddle, the numerous species of magical plants and herbs he’s discovered in the last decade, his involvement with Muggle relations legislation, his time spent as an auror in the wake of The Battle of Hogwarts?

His words are usually so measured, so cautious, that I think he surprises even himself when he answers immediately: “In my first year at Hogwarts, at the end of the year banquet, Professor Dumbledore awarded me ten points for courage.” Professor Longbottom does not mention what brave feat it was exactly that earned him the points. “It tipped us, Gryffindor, over Slytherin, and we won the House Cup.”

“That was your best victory because you took the title right out from under Slytherin?” I ask.

“No,” he smiles. “It was my best victory because Albus Dumbledore said I showed ‘a great deal of bravery’. You would have had to know him to know what that feels like. He was a great man, the greatest. I don’t deserve to have my name in the same book with him.”

“Were you always brave?” I ask Neville.

He shakes his head. “No. No, I was never brave. I was always afraid. I was afraid before I came to Hogwarts that I wouldn’t even get a letter. I was afraid when I got here I would flunk out. I was afraid in Potions. I was afraid to ride a broom to tryout for Quidditch. I was afraid when I joined Dumbledore’s Army. I was afraid when I battled in the Department of Mysteries. I was terrified out of my mind before I sliced the head off of Riddle’s snake that day during the battle.”

“But you did it anyway,” I tell him. “Despite your fear.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I did.”

“That’s courage,” I tell him.

He smiles. “Yes, well, I am a Gryffindor.”

Behind Professor Longbottom’s desk, the plant he showed me at the beginning of our visit finally opens up. I sit silently as it exposes its petals: deep indigo tips, followed by vivid orange, and finally a pink core as bright as Father Christmas’s cheeks. It is, as Neville Longbottom predicted, astonishing.

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