It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Prep teacher Andy McCarthy as Albus Dumbledore, the all-knowing wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts, the fictional English boarding school in the wildly popular Harry Potter series. “At this point in my life I can identify with the aging headmaster who still has his moments,” says McCarthy.
But even a magical “elder wand” couldn’t change the trajectory of COVID. McCarthy was well into his sabbatical year when the pandemic forced him to change his travel plans and head back to Seattle. Faced with a long quarantine Andy made a spontaneous decision to read the entire Harry Potter series. “My kids read the books, but I never had,” he says. “It seemed like a good quarantine project.” It took some time, but McCarthy diligently worked his way through the 7 books (over 4,000 pages of wizardry and conflict) taking great satisfaction in the tower of completed novels as they piled up higher and higher.
The classic coming-of-age storyline made it difficult for McCarthy to put the books down. “When I was a kid,” he says, “The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were my go-to books for fantasy and escapism. Harry Potter is in that same genre but definitely a little darker.”
McCarthy doesn’t have a favorite Harry Potter book, just great admiration for the way author JK Rawling manages to sustain numerous threads throughout the series. He says, “I have only read the series once, but I know many people who have read them repeatedly and they speak about all the tiny details she weaves from the very first book until the last.”
In a year that was largely remote, McCarthy sees his newly acquired Harry Potter knowledge as a good way to bond with his students. “Many of the kids coming into Prep, have read the Harry Potter books and it’s nice to be able to reference them, especially with freshmen as they are trying to navigate their way. If you can make a comparison between what we are reading in class with what they know and are familiar with; they appreciate it,” he says.
History is more typical of McCarthy’s reading genre. He is currently reading Lakota America, a history of the Sioux nation. The book resonates deeply because early in his sabbatical he traveled the land once inhabited by this tribe. He says, “The Sioux were a real force in the middle of our country for a couple hundred years. I don’t think mainstream history does a good job of telling this story.”
From Harry Potter to American history, McCarthy’s favorite reading spot is the one constant— a comfy chair in his backyard, beside the firepit, on a warm day. Quarantine or not, he continues to expand his reading experiences.
In this unprecedented year, the value of the close-knit relationships between the main characters in Harry Potter books are not lost on McCarthy. “COVID has disrupted so many of our normal relationships and interactions that we use to take for granted,” he says. “This year we have had to work much harder to build community. I realized I can’t take things for granted. In my teaching I want to be more intentional about getting to know kids and make sure they get to know each other.”
It may take more than an incantation of expecto patronum but McCarthy is determined to prioritize community building in his classroom next fall. He says, “I realize it’s a skill that I need to work on and keep trying to get better at it even when we get back to normal.”
Sounds like the work of a true wizard.